Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, August 12, 2013 – After spending more than $1 billion trying to create more racial balance in some of Minnesota’s most segregated schools, state education leaders say they have a better way to ensure every student has equal opportunity.
The new plan for what’s called “integration funding” focuses on student achievement and allows the Minnesota Department of Education to step in when districts aren’t hitting the mark.
For more than a dozen years, the state and local taxpayers have given as many as 134 districts extra funding to diversify schools that have large concentrations of minority students.
The intent was to improve achievement by helping schools spread at-risk students more evenly throughout their districts. Yet the number of “racially isolated” schools — where minority enrollment is 20 percentage points higher than comparable schools in their districts — has grown by 50 percent.
And the state’s gap between the academic performance of minority and poor students and their peers continues to be one of the worst in the nation.
“The program didn’t work,” said state Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who sits on the House Education Policy Committee. “How can your achievement gap grow and grow and grow when you have a program that was supposed to address it?”
In 2011, Republican lawmakers decided integration funding should be overhauled or it would end by this year. They cited a report by the state legislative auditor that found the program had no clear mission and little oversight from the state Education Department.
Districts that received integration funds often spent the money to run magnet schools, transport students or address the achievement gap. But the report also found the money was used for such questionable purchases as textbooks and computers.
The plan approved by the DFL-controlled Legislature this year has new purpose and better oversight, education leaders say.
Districts that receive the integration funding will be required to focus the money not just on efforts to integrate schools, but also on programs that will close the achievement gap. School districts will have to work with community members to develop plans that will be reviewed by the Education Department.
If a district doesn’t show results after three years, the department will have the power to step in and direct some of the district’s integration money to other efforts.
Brenda Cassellius, state education commissioner, says the changes are part of an education overhaul meant to improve oversight — while at the same time maintaining local school leaders’ control over how they spend resources to improve teaching and learning.
“We’ve added accountability at every step,” Cassellius said. She added that the Legislature’s decision to give her department power to intervene is unprecedented: “There has never been those type of teeth before.”
Cassellius said she hopes school leaders will consider new initiatives to narrow the achievement gap, such as preschools, college- and workforce-readiness programs, and teacher recruitment and retention.
Districts will still be able to use the money for magnet schools and transportation of students to schools of their choice, but Cassellius says those efforts had minimal impact.
“I don’t see magnet schools as strong strategies anymore,” she said. While that approach can create diversity, she said, “I don’t think it is the best approach for closing the achievement gap.”
IS INTEGRATION NECESSARY?
Critics of the new plan say it won’t work.
Katherine Kersten, a senior fellow with the Center for the American Experiment, a think tank advocating free-market solutions, said the belief that integrating schools helps minority students achieve is misguided. Kersten sat on a committee that in 2012 examined the state’s integration-aid system and recommended it be modified.
Kersten disagreed with the final recommendation and authored a report that criticized using “race-based” remedies to narrow the achievement gap.
“If this approach worked, we wouldn’t have a racial and ethnic learning gap,” Kersten said.
Instead, Kersten and other critics support providing more choices to students who are in struggling communities where public schools are failing. When alternative schools focus on longer school days, data-driven instruction, and intense student and family support, they are successful with the most challenged students, she said.
As examples, Kersten names Harvest Preparatory School and Hiawatha Academy in Minneapolis. Both charter schools serve mostly poor and minority students, and the students score near or above state averages on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.
“We know what works: high expectations, rigorous courses and excellent teaching,” she said.
Kersten and state Rep. Erickson are also skeptical of the new oversight system. The Education Department will set the bar for measuring success, which both say just empowers bureaucrats.
Instead, Erickson said, use the existing system. If students are not proficient or making progress, their schools face intervention.
“Hold them to the standards we have,” Erickson said. “Why do bureaucrats need to be involved?”
SCHOOLS THAT WORK
Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law professor who directs the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, says changes to the state’s integration efforts are a step in the right direction. He said magnet schools and other efforts to diversify school buildings have resulted in improved achievement here and across the nation.
“There is evidence across the country that the right magnet schools do the best job closing the achievement gap,” he said.
The two charter schools Kersten cites have strong test scores, Orfield said, but they are outliers that are not accurate representations of Minnesota’s more than 100 charter schools. Furthermore, charter schools that cater to one race or group often force neighboring public schools to offer similar programs and exacerbate the state’s segregation problem, he said.
“The data shows (charters) just aren’t succeeding,” Orfield said. “They are causing public schools to be more segregated than they would be.”
Bill Wilson, who runs St. Paul’s Higher Ground Academy, says calling his school segregated is unfair and inaccurate. Higher Ground enrolls a primarily black student population, but what’s important to Wilson is that students are there by choice.
“People go to magnet schools by choice, and people go to charter schools by choice,” Wilson said. “As long as people are there by choice and there is no law that says they can or cannot be there, the discussion of segregation does not apply.”
A Pioneer Press analysis of state test scores and enrollment data found that both charter school and magnet school advocates may be right.
The analysis found that schools with minority student populations of greater than 60 percent tend to have poor reading and math scores.
But a small number of those schools — including charter and magnet schools — have top test scores. Additionally, the majority of schools with minority populations of between 35 percent and 60 percent had scores near the state average, test and enrollment data show.
While those schools include charter and magnet schools, many are traditional public schools.
A CHANGING SUBURBAN DISTRICT
The true test of state lawmakers’ latest approach to integrating schools and closing the achievement gap may come in districts such as West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan. The small suburban district of about 4,700 pupils added more than 500 minority students between 2005 and 2012, a 28 percent increase.
To respond, district leaders converted half the district’s eight school buildings to magnet schools with special curricula focused on attracting a diverse mix of students. Many parents strongly support the effort, but so far, six years after the first magnet program opened at Garlough Elementary, success has been mixed.
The student population at Garlough is now more reflective of the district’s enrollment, but test scores remain below the district and state averages.
Grants used to establish the magnet programs are running out, and school leaders expect the schools to continue without special support from the district’s general fund.
Superintendent Nancy Allen-Mastro said it would be unfair to give half the district’s schools special resources. The buildings will continue to have access to integration funding and other state funding for education of at-risk students.
Beyond the magnet programs, Allen-Mastro says, her district will focus on teacher training, data-driven instruction, student support and family outreach to close the achievement gap.
“So many things contribute to the achievement gap, no one thing is going to fix it,” Allen-Mastro said.
She added that while district leaders remain committed to their magnet schools, they worry that in some parts of the district, the schools are having unintended consequences.
“There are challenges that come with school choice,” she said. “Looking at enrollment data, there is a lot of movement, and it’s not necessarily students moving into the magnets. To say it’s integrating schools … it may be having the opposite effect. It’s too early to tell.”
It’s clear that state educators will face a growing challenge as the Twin Cities continue to diversify. Between 2000 and 2010, metro populations of minority residents grew by 50 percent, according to U.S. census data.
In the early 1990s, after decades of school-integration efforts in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota had just a handful of schools with student populations that were more than 80 percent minority and low-income, according to Orfield. Today, there are 127.
Despite the failings of the state’s integration efforts, families and educators across the metro see value in the diverse schools the state has created in the past dozen years. Take the more than two-year battle to save two East Metro Integration District schools from closure.
Supporters of Crosswinds East Metro Arts and Science School and Harambee Elementary Community Cultures and Environmental Science School tirelessly lobbied state lawmakers and won a last-minute reprieve.
Eric Celeste, a parent with children who attended both schools, helped lead the effort and said it was about much more than two schools. In Harambee and Crosswinds, parents and students found a model for learning about a quickly changing world.
“We found these two schools in the first place,” Celeste said, “because we were looking for something that was missing in our regular public schools: a place of broad-based acceptance of kids of every stripe.”
Celeste is happy that lawmakers saved the integration funding that helps support schools such as Crosswinds and Harambee, but he’s concerned they may have tied integration too closely to efforts to close the achievement gap.
Diversity for diversity’s sake is also important, Celeste said.
“As Minnesota becomes more diverse, some of our least-attractive human natures come into play,” Celeste said of the tendency for racial and ethnic groups to cluster together. “Integration helps families be less fearful of the other. Achievement is important, but so is knitting that strong social fabric of what America should be.”