Minneapolis changing school options: A return to separate but equal?


by Kate Towle | September 21, 2009 The Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) are poised for landmark changes as they seek to reverse declining enrollment, growing competition with private and charter schools, and an internal choice system that exacerbated segregation.  Both the MPS Board of Directors and district leadership have admirably placed high importance on a strategy that addresses equity between students, while reducing a busing system costing $33 million a year and equal, says the district, to a “trip around the world.” If the district had a national flag, it would read, “Equity, stability, sustainability.”

MPS has endured a 28% enrollment loss (approximately 5% annually) since the year 2000, the pilot year of the NAACP lawsuit’s “Choice Is Yours” program.  MPS students on free-and-reduced lunch (a standard indicator of poverty, receive transportation to open-enroll in ten different suburban districts.  Coupled with enrollment loss are rising deficits; each time the district loses a student (whether to shifting demographics or open enrollment), the district loses approximately $12,500. The current deficit is estimated at $28 million.  The empty spaces in buildings cost the district $5 million per year. 

The MPS Strategic Plan was thoughtfully created, with a clear goal of making “every child college ready,” along with raising expectations and rigor, transforming school leadership, strengthening teaching, launching new schools and addressing the lowest 25%.  The blueprint holds much promise.  

While President Obama’s administration aims to double funding for charter-type programs, the MPS district began its reform plan with an emphasis on returning to community schools.  With fuel-costs ever increasing, it is wise to keep our students closer to home.  Wrapping our schools with community supports such as housing and healthcare will help provide for our poorest students.

However, there are glaring caveats.  Our city is highly segregated, with North Minneapolis students facing large instability with employment, housing, healthcare and transportation.   About 1/6 of our students are homeless or highly mobile,  a 20% increase in this population since last year at this time.  Given those realities, and the increasing trend for students to leave our district at a rate of 2.5% each year through open enrollment, we can ill afford to abandon the choice system. 


Our goal must be to increase access for those students living in poverty.  Author Richard Kahlenberg, a researcher of tipping points that allow for an effective balance of low-income and middle-to-upper class families, writes, “Four decades of research has found that the single best thing one can do for a low-income child is give her a chance to attend a middle-class school.”

MPS is remiss in not extending a few magnet choices at the high school level as it is at the K-8 levels.  The current plan asks that busing be limited by geography and that all comprehensive high schools are standardized to an International Baccalaureate (IB) core curriculum to accommodate our highly mobile student population.

South High, a popular school that draws students from around the city and whose enrollment has been the 2nd most stable of all our high schools-1st is Southwest High School-will only receive busing to two of its three programs beginning in 2010/11: Open and All Nations.  Its Liberal Arts program, which gives the school its competitive advantage, was a factor in its #5 ranking in Minnesota High School by Newsweek.  Students beyond South’s neighborhood will be unable to attend unless they furnish their own transportation.   This places an undue burden on low-income students.  Neighborhoods where there is a high concentration of poverty, such as Jordan and Near North, will have limited access to South’s programs.

With such changes, our district risks disruption that could throw our city into an even greater educational tailspin. The charters offer an incubator that demonstrates benefits by bringing funds and decisions closer to students.  It is naïve to believe that we can offer the same program in every school in every neighborhood.  We’ve reached a dangerous tipping point where middle class families (now at 37%) are leaving and not coming back.   Yet, we need middle-to-upper class families to invest more than ever in ALL of our district children, not leave for private, parochial and suburban schools.

To not return to Plessy vs. Ferguson’s “Separate but Equal” mentality, we would be wise to realize that our urban high school students are global citizens.  When they want to cross socio-economic, racial and geographic barriers, we must let them. Low-income students may need bus vouchers that allow access to high-performing schools. The Strategic Plan promises that high performers like South will be given more, not less, autonomy. That was a wise suggestion.  MPS would do well to follow its own advice. 


Kate Towle is a writer and parent of two Minneapolis Public School students.  She has served for the past three years on the District Parent Advisory Council.

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