Minnesotans, are you really OK with segregation?

/ 30 March 2013 / eunice

Kelly DeBrine, Star Tribune Commentary, March 30, 2013 – I lived in Little Rock, Ark., for 22 years. My family moved to the south in 1975, just two years after busing was imposed as a method to desegregate the public schools. I graduated from Little Rock Central High School in 1983, 26 years after Gov. Orval Faubus tried to prevent nine black students from matriculating there.

Our nation has struggled with the question of educational equity and integration for many decades, from north to south and east to west. The Twin Cities have faced multiple lawsuits since 1971 challenging a segregated and unequal educational system.

In 1994, the state Education Department responded by approving a “voluntary” metrowide school desegregation plan. In 2000, the state settled an NAACP lawsuit, originally filed in 1995, that resulted in “The Choice is Yours” program. But years later, our voluntary method of providing a more equitable education for all students has failed. The state now has one of the highest achievement gaps in the nation.

But I never thought I would actually hear people say that segregation was OK as long as it was voluntary or by choice. Katherine Kersten, a contributing writer for the Star Tribune and senior fellow with the Center of the American Experiment, stated as much in her own report that she presented to the Legislature last year after she participated in the Integration Revenue Replacement Task Force. As she reiterated, “… federal law does not prohibit racial imbalance; it prohibits racial separation caused by intentional government discrimination.” Her argument was that, somehow, if we meddle with the definition of “segregation” and add “unintentional” segregation into the requirements, we open ourselves up to lawsuits. So, we should do nothing about racially isolated schools, because we have not created these conditions “intentionally.”

The last I heard, separate was not considered equal. A couple-hundred-plus years of American policy have resulted in this predicament of segregated cities with segregated schools. Ignoring these previously intentional acts that affect the current state of urban and suburban demographics could also be construed as intentional neglect.

My husband and I moved to Minnesota in 1997 for career opportunities and for the chance to live in a state with an honorable and progressive reputation. As a Minnesotan, I’m ashamed of my state’s lack of leadership to address problems of inequity and segregation.

What happened to the legacy of Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, who so passionately spoke out against racism and for civil rights, back when it was not necessarily easy to do? Why can’t we admit that the achievement gap stems from a segregated and unequal educational environment that has not been mitigated by voluntary desegregation strategies? It hasn’t helped that our state’s “pioneering” efforts with charter schools have intensified our segregation, as Myron Orfield revealed in a recent study.

The way we fund our public schools and how we reinforce poor outcomes by adding more “choice” that only some kids can take advantage of leaves us with little opportunity to intentionally create community across cultures and socioeconomic status. Every child who fails in school will grow up to be a citizen who is unprepared to contribute in positive ways to our community. When a portion of our community is failing, we all fail, with far-reaching consequences.

I have personal experience trying to support a voluntary desegregation effort — one that was actually working. The East Metro Integration District is a collaboration of 10 urban-suburban school districts formed to mitigate racial isolation in the east metro area. EMID has operated for almost 15 years, and up until the end of this school year, has run two schools that successfully attracted an integrated population as a choice program. Since 2007, my children have attended one of these schools, Crosswinds Arts & Sciences Magnet School in Woodbury.

EMID, however, began using the funds in order to retain more integration funding for its own districts. The last action it took was to auction the schools off to the home districts where they were located. Why this all-white integration school board is allowed to give away a state asset, built for the purposes of relieving the racial isolation of students in St. Paul, is beyond me. But the result is the children who have thrived there with the intentional teaching methods that battle racial and educational inequity, will be kicked back to their home districts — that is, those whose parents do not have the means to seek alternatives for them. Not everyone has a choice.

How, you might ask, can an integration district be allowed to dissolve its commitment to integration by defunding its schools? I’m still asking that question.

There is a bill before the Minnesota House and Senate that would allow a state agency, the Perpich Center for the Arts, to take over governance of Crosswinds and maintain its effective programming. This bill has passed through two House committees with bipartisan support, but it is stalled in the Senate because, as my own senator said to me, the Legislature shouldn’t be the entity to solve this problem. Perhaps we need the Minnesota Supreme Court to weigh in, since it seems that lawsuits are the only way to remedy or address inequity in education.

If the state can’t be the bully pulpit that supports a desegregated and equitable educational system, then who will? Our suburban districts have absented themselves from this responsibility; our leaders have abdicated responsibility just as Orval Faubus did 56 years ago. Who is left? Do we as a state believe that segregation is fine?

In 1982, I tried to rally my fellow students at Central to protest the “school voucher” movement because, as a student back then, I could anticipate the end results: extracting resources from our public schools to subsidize a special educational system for people who have the means. Well, here we are in 2013, in Minnesota, with a very segregated and highly inequitable educational system. Who is responsible now?


Kelly DeBrine, of Woodbury, has worked with other East Metro Integration District parents over the past two years to preserve the integration program at Crosswinds.