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How cities benefit from desegregated schools

Compared to 25 other metro areas, the Twin Cities looks like a mecca of tolerance and diversity.

Until recently, Minnesota provided money to help school districts integrate.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

Prepare for your mind to take a few hairpin curves over the next few paragraphs.

A new report  from the Civil Rights Project, a UCLA research group, shows that the nation’s schools are still segregated. Some 80 percent of Latino kids and 74 percent of black children attend so-called majority-minority schools — those that are over 50 percent non-white.

Official school segregation died with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 when the Supreme Court declared that separate will never be equal. But a de facto school apartheid has continued and intensified with increasing poverty in the last 20 years, according to Gary Orfield, co-author with John Kucsera and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley of the report, which is called “E Pluribus Separation.” In the early 1990s, the average Latino or black student attended a school where about a third of students were poor. Now low-income students comprise two thirds of their classmates.  

So what about the Twin Cities? Well, compared to 25 other metro areas, we look like a mecca of tolerance and diversity; only 56 percent of black children (the lowest of 25) and only 49 percent of Latinos (22nd) are enrolled in majority-minority schools. That compares to, say, 91 and 85 percent in the New York region, 86 and 87 percent in San Diego and 70 and 74 percent in Denver.

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Lest we start thinking too well of ourselves, however, here are a couple of less felicitous facts. First, our area looks good mostly because the overall school population is predominantly white, about 70 percent. By the law of averages or the theory of random walks, the various racial groups are likely to be more mixed than in New York, for example, where 41 percent of kids are white or in San Diego with a white school population of 35 percent.

Second, Twin Cities schools are heading in the wrong direction, says Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School and Gary’s younger brother. (Apparently, civil rights are a family business.) “In 1993 we had no segregated schools,” he says. “Now we’re catching up. We’ve got about 110.” No longer are they concentrated in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Dozens of suburbs stretching north of Minneapolis and east of St. Paul have become majority-minority schools.

Segregation harmful

Such a development is pretty dismaying because decades of social science research have proven that school segregation is truly harmful. Racially and economically isolated schools (unlike their more affluent counterparts):

  • tend to have less experienced and less qualified teachers, partly because of high turnover;
  • have fewer resources, books, computers and so on.
  • provide less challenging curricula (few or no AP courses, for example) and emphasize rote learning;
  • discipline students more punitively, producing higher expulsion and drop-out rates.

 What’s more, writes the UCLA Orfield (Gary): “Studies have shown that desegregated settings are associated with heightened academic achievement for minority students (with no corresponding detrimental impact for white students).”  

At the same time, kids in those predominantly white and Asian schools, despite their advantages, may be missing out on the opportunity to work and learn with kids from vastly different backgrounds. In a nation hurtling toward the moment when the majority will become a minority — demographers estimate that in 2040 or thereabouts whites will comprise 48 percent of total population — getting along with others could be a crucial determinant of future success.

Despite those obvious benefits, integration as a national priority has moved to the back of the bus. Almost all states that had strategies fostering integration have abandoned them. And since the 1970s, courts gradually rolled back desegregation initiatives, for example, allowing inner-city minority students access to suburban school districts. By the 1990s, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted localities to drop school integration plans. 

So what we have now, he argues, is a de facto separate-but-equal education policy. In other words, we won’t make any effort to mix races or income groups. The nation instead struggles to ramp up achievement in all schools and hope that segregated schools in poverty-stricken areas will magically benefit from the efforts — which have included the creation of charter schools, adoption of tough testing standards (No Child Left Behind) and most recently teacher-evaluation systems that will supposedly weed out the incompetent.

None of these initiatives has accomplished much. A study of Twin Cities charter schools by the University of Minnesota Orfield (Myron) found that charter schools are often more segregated than public schools and generally fail to produce high-achieving graduates. Testing criteria embodied in the No Child Left Behind program branded schools as “failing” without providing them the resources to allow their students to succeed. Thousands of schools across the nation couldn’t meet the testing criteria — about half of Minnesota’s. In recent years, a couple dozen states, including ours, have sought and received waivers from the program.

Of course, simply seating black and Latino students next to white children will not solve every educational problem. “Getting in the door is only the first step,” says Gary Orfield. Schools can be segregated internally, with white and minority students sorted into different tracks — one headed toward college and the other to the street. And insensitive teachers can treat minority students like interloping outsiders.

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But putting minority children in an affluent, stable school — “a school that’s functioning,” he says — gives them more opportunity to advance, to attend college and to succeed in life. “At the very least,” he says, “they are with kids who see that they have a future.” 

Buck the trend

Both Orfields say that the Twin Cities could buck the trend more easily than other metropolitan areas because our schools are not yet as segregated. Until recently, Minnesota provided money to help school districts integrate. GOP legislators voted to cut off the funds in 2011, but a bipartisan state task force recommended this spring that the state continue the effort. The Legislature failed to act on the plan, however, and it’s not clear whether the money — about $108 million — will flow this year either. 

A more ambitious possibility: the Metropolitan Council could gradually prod more school integration by restarting its policy (dropped in 1993) mandating that low-income housing be built in localities with good, stable schools — instead of clumping it in areas with poor schools, as it does now. “Portland (Oregon),” says Myron Orfield, “is going in the opposite direction from most cities because it’s putting low-income housing in affluent suburbs.”

The creation of more integrated schools across the region could have another healthful effect: neighborhood stability. Parents, instead of moving hither and yon to find white public school nirvana might conclude that if the schools are similar everywhere, they may as well stay put.