OPINION | Minnesota schools still separate, still unequal

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court made one of the most important decisions in this nation’s history in Brown v. Board of Education. Since that ruling, school segregation has been considered inherently unequal and unlawful. Yet now Minnesota, as well as many other states, is reaching levels of segregation in schools that some say reflects the pre - Brown v. Board era, and research suggests that our current education and housing policies aren’t doing anything to help.

Minnesota was the first state in the nation to allow charter schools in 1991. While still technically public schools, charter schools are only subject to a selection of the rules and regulations that apply to most public schools.

The academic success of charter schools is debatable at best. A study at the University of Minnesota found that Twin Cities charter schools scored on average 7.5 percent lower on math and 4.5 percent lower on reading. This study reflects the findings of many other national studies. This is not to say that all charter schools are bad. In fact, many significantly exceed public school performance, and the Minnesota waiver for No Child Left Behind allows the state Department of Education to intervene more successfully when they underperform. Overall though, charter schools are not showing favorable results.

Despite this lack of measured success, the charter school movement is gaining popularity in Minnesota. In 2000, about 10,000 students were enrolled in charter schools. Now, around 40,000 students are enrolled. About 1 in every 5 Minneapolis students are now in charter schools, and for every student that leaves public school to attend a charter school, their funding goes with them.

On top of this, education scholars have argued charter schools contribute to public school segregation. In the 2009-2010 school year, roughly 75% of the 127 charter schools in the Twin Cities region were classified as “highly segregated,” 44% were more than 80% non-white, while 32% were mostly white. Charter school segregation is not only a Minnesota problem, it is also a trend nationwide.

Minnesota also has had an open enrollment school policy since 1988, intended to spur competition between schools. Whether or not the competition has added to student achievement is debatable, as our False Choices report highlights. The policy has also had unintended consequences, leading in some districts to what has been called “de facto resegregation.”

The largest transfers of students tend to be from diverse school districts, as white students leave to attend whiter schools. The biggest inflows into diverse school districts tend to be of students of color. The three large city districts of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and St. Cloud each lose substantial amounts students every year, mostly from white students transferring to less diverse suburban districts.

Advantaged students disproportionately use open enrollment, generally because they have the resources to overcome out-of-district transportation. Low income families often don’t have the means to accommodate transferring their children, resulting in a class divide and an increase in the achievement gap between schools.

The answer to this self-segregation isn't removing open enrollment, but Minnesota should increase integration efforts and work to strengthen community ties to neighborhood schools. While the state funds an Integration Revenue Program, it's set to expire in 2014. This legislative session, lawmakers must not only renew the funding, but reform the guidelines to more efficiently enhance integration efforts.

Better housing policy would also help. In 1993, the Metropolitan Council removed a mandate that low-income housing be built in affluent suburbs with stable schools, rather than in areas with high poverty concentrations. This policy is currently being used by Portland, Oregon, and as a result Portland is one of the few cities that becoming more integrated.

Charter schools and open enrollment aren't the silver bullet to closing the achievement gap and providing a more equatable education, as some reformers propose. They're part of a broader education system that's been failed by dwindling state funding and cuts to the community services that support public education's mission. Solving the school segregation issue goes way beyond the classroom. Policymakers must focus on building stronger communities and helping all people find economic opportunities.