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Minnesota’s new ‘white flight’: school open-enrollment program

MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Urban districts in Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Cloud have lost “substantial numbers of students” because of the state's open enrollment program.

A state program intended to help integrate school districts and balance academic opportunities for children of all races has actually resulted in increased racial segregation.

A new University of Minnesota analysis finds that more white students than students of color across the Twin Cities metropolitan area are leaving racially diverse districts to enroll in predominantly white districts, a variation of the “white flight” of the 1970s and 1980s when white families up and sold their homes and moved away from changing demographics in urban school districts or sent their children to private rather than public schools.

Further, according to the analysis, the trend is growing stronger. The study  recommends that the state monitor and correct the situation.

What we’re talking about here is the open enrollment program which became law in Minnesota in 1988 and that allows families to enroll their children in nearby school districts outside the neighborhoods where they live. It also gives districts certain rights to refuse students from other districts.

Key findings from the study released today and covering the metropolitan area’s 69 school districts should attract the attention of legislators.

When considering study results, keep in mind that overall, schools in the 11-county Twin Cities area are still majority white, about 70 percent, according to stats from school year 2009-2010, and that partially explains why more white families have opted for open enrollment.

Open enrollment by race in the Twin Cities, 2000–2010

chart of open enrollment use by race
Source: Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity; MN Department of Education

It’s also noteworthy that non-white students open-enrolled both into urban districts from the suburbs and vice versa.

Still, the analysis concludes, while racial integration does occur in many instances with the movement of students between districts, “overall [open enrollment] increased segregation in the region, with the segregative trend growing stronger over time.” 

Region-wide, 20 percent of student-moves in school year 2000-2001 caused more racial segregation, while by 2009-2010 that figure rose to 36 percent, the study “Open Enrollment and Racial Segregation in the Twin Cities: 2000-2010’’  reveals. 

The urban districts in Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Cloud have lost “substantial numbers of students” because of the program, with the majority of the loss being white students, the study points out.

Parental reasons for moving their children from one district to another are not included in the study, but quality of education is likely among them. Some families move their children from inferior schools to better ones.

The analysis was carried out and released by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity of the University of Minnesota Law School. (The institute had long been called the Institute on Race and Poverty but has broadened its focus.)

Other findings

Among suburban districts losing the most students to the program are Columbia Heights and Richfield, which are also experiencing rapid racial and economic transition, “a process that [open enrollment] has clearly facilitated by enabling the loss of white students.”

Open enrollment school district types, 2009-2010 

Source: Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity; Minnesota Department of Education; MN-Link
 Central cities
 Greatest net senders
 Greatest net receivers
 Suburban hubs

On the other hand, districts gaining the most students from open enrollment are predominantly white districts becoming whiter. The St. Anthony-New Brighton district has become a magnet for white students transferring from poorer and more diverse Columbia Heights and Minneapolis districts. White open enrollment to St. Anthony now makes up more than one-third of the student population.

Other recent movement that has increased concentrations of white students includes an exodus of white students from Hopkins to Minnetonka and Edina school districts.

It’s also noteworthy that non-white students open-enrolled both into urban districts from the suburbs and vice versa.  

Roseville in the east metro sees predominantly non-white students leaving for St. Paul schools and welcomes a “predominantly white group in return.’’ 

Minnetonka and Mahtomedi districts have become destinations for white families fleeing either Hopkins or White Bear Lake schools.

The open enrollment law is well-intentioned, yet problems naturally arise, says Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, and a researcher who has long-studied integration and segregation in Minnesota schools.

To start, he says, more white students participate because it is easier for more well-off families – who tend to be white — to consider open enrollment. They have cars and so can drive their children to school in a neighboring district.

Orfield says the analysis shows that some districts, such as Hopkins, keep to the spirit of the law, recruiting and accepting enrollment of children of all races, while others apparently do not. For example, some districts a while back openly recruited unhappy, white Eden Prairie families when that district implemented attendance boundary changes to more fairly integrate their schools.  

That isn’t equitable, Orfield says. “Districts should be fairer to each other. They should recruit not only white, affluent kids, but non-white, less-affluent kids.’’ If they can’t do that on their own, the state should step in, he says, indicating that Institute researchers welcome the opportunity to testify before legislators.

University researchers call for a renewal of the state’s Integration Revenue Program, due to disappear in 2014, but also for changing its funding formula to “target funds more efficiently to districts which are doing the most to actually integrate schools and classrooms.’’  

That’s in line with a new report from the Education Finance Working Group, a policy panel of the Minnesota Department of Education, which recommends that districts with higher concentrations of students of color receive more integration dollars. 

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/11/2013 - 08:13 am.

    Gotta put a stop to this, pronto !!

    We don’t want parents sending their kids to school where they want them to go, now do we ??

    Is it possible, just possible, that these parents want a better education for their children ??

    Our social engineers see the public, believing they are exercising a free choice, as somehow getting a wrong idea about this whole open enrollment thing. It’s apparently not about freedom of choice at all.

  2. Submitted by mark wallek on 01/11/2013 - 09:02 am.

    The unfortunate truth

    Bussing, just as an act, is terribly expensive. A horrific waste of dollars. Schools, oddly enough, are not funded equally, as they should be. The best aspect of my early school years was walking to my school in my neighborhood. I think it’s more important to recieve a quality education backed by completely funded programs in ones own neighborhood, moreso than bussing for percieved integration. Smart kids will not succumb to racial prejudice when well fed and well educated. Then integration can be an organic process based on human to human interaction.

  3. Submitted by Kim Millman on 01/11/2013 - 09:51 am.

    White Flight? Not the Problem

    “White flight” is not the cause of the problems with the schools. A more accurate discription may be “self segregating affluence.” The problem has less to do with race than it does with class, i.e., take a tour of some of the rural area schools.

    The problem with the quality of the schools in many areas has more to do with how we fund schools and the affluent populace manipulation of that funding. As long as the affluent can either live within areas or transport their children to areas that build literal shrines for schools, they could care less that the remaining schools in both urban and rural areas stand as a disgrace to the historic values of Minnesotans. Instead of an attitude of we’re in this together, the ulimate principle of the affluent to live by is they have theirs and tough luck to those that don’t.

    The same affluent populace uses their political pull to get state funding for special items on their wish lists that appear to be equal opportunity education items but actually work to the detriment of fully funding all schools’ infrastructure and teacher needs. The education advocates go along with the call for more special funding mechnisms because any additional money for education is a good thing no matter the disparity among the economic classes. There is no excuse for some schools to be shrines while others are mere shacks.

    And as unpopular as it may be, the second biggest problem with the quality of our schools has much to do with those that get paid to pontificate about education process rather than educational passion. The “education degreed” elites have traded primarily solid education circulums for naval gazing experiments. They’ve processed the passion right out of the students.

    The experts should concentrate on fixing the real problems instead of playing shell games with student geography.

  4. Submitted by David Greene on 01/11/2013 - 10:50 am.


    I’m shocked at some of the comments here.

    Studies show that integration *improves education for _all_ kids*. White flight hurts white kids just as much as it hurts kids of color.

    We should be doing everything we can to integrate schools. Future demographic trends show that our children are going to need the social skills to interact with all kinds of people. Parents self-segregating their kids are only hurting them.

  5. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/11/2013 - 11:08 am.

    Segregation of money

    As noted above, this is less about race than it is about money and quality. It is no secret that some schools are better than others. The problem is that we’re failing to make sure that the schools that are worse get less worse. School funding, curricula, teaching, and resources are WAAAAY too local. We rely too heavily on local funding sources, particularly local levies and property taxes, and as a result, there’s a large difference in funding. In addition, we allow the surrounding economic disparities to affect who teaches and how. Teachers don’t get paid enough to risk life and limb in a school with a reputation of violence. Nor do they have any influence over whether their students can learn in many cases (it’s not always about passion–many times it’s more about whether or not the student’s belly is full or whether they live in fear at home, at school, or anywhere in between). Nor is it always possible to implement the best teaching practices in every school, where parent involvement varies, cultural acceptance varies, and student willingness to learn varies. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about interacting with a group of people that don’t care.

    The second, and probably most important, issue is the fundamental cultural and class disparities. Yeah, you can vote with your feet…if you can afford to. Realistically, not every student (or parent of a student) who is motivated to do better can simply go somewhere else. Emptying less successful schools of the monetary influence of those that choose better schools leaves behind even fewer resources (and clout) for those who can’t make that choice financially. And when parents do make that choice, they can get punished for not having the means to do so (as this woman in Ohio did As a result, you’ve not only left a bright and/or motivated student (or parent) with even less than they had before.

    Open enrollment wouldn’t be such an issue if there wasn’t this much disparity in both the locales and the schools themselves. But then, why would anyone want to switch if everything was equal? I honestly don’t think that anyone really thought that open enrollment would do anything but result in greater economic disparity between schools.

  6. Submitted by Evelyn Johnson on 01/11/2013 - 11:39 am.

    nothing to do with Race or class

    For some this has nothing to do with Race or class. For example at Washburn, many times it’s the classes that bother some students. Too many of them are too easy. I am told by my kids that if they finish class work early sometimes, they’re just sitting there. They are putting all freshmen and sophomores into the same core classes, regardless of ability this means putting lower-achieving students in classes with higher achievers and expecting all to perform at the same level. Kids aren’t challenged enough or don’t get enough high-level courses. So then the kids tell the parents about the brain drain and the kids get pulled out and moved to a higher performing school or one of the widely regarded college prep public schools.

  7. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 01/11/2013 - 12:42 pm.

    Of course, schools are rewarded for teaching to high stakes testing. Under our screwy national education policy (better known as NCLB) schools that do poorly on test scores lose students and dollars. That is hugely responsible for the loss of educational passion and white flight.

  8. Submitted by David Greene on 01/11/2013 - 02:59 pm.

    It *is* about race, folks.

    This absolutely is about race. We like to talk about class instead so we don’t feel uncomfortable, but one only has to look at the numbers staring in our faces to see that our schools are racially segregated and getting more so.

    We absolutely have to fix it because otherwise we will not survive as a region. We have to determine _why_ this is happening and then change policies so that it doesn’t happen. If parents are moving kids because they think some schools are better, the solution is to improve the poorly-performing schools.

    BTW, the reason some schools are lower performing goes way back to the original white flight days, which *was* all about race. The schools were fine until the wealthy tax base started to leave.

  9. Submitted by Curt Johnson on 01/11/2013 - 03:37 pm.

    University study – white flight

    The open enrollment law was not enacted to promote racial integration. To assert that as an opening premise is close to revisionist history. Its purpose was to give parents and students choices and break the monopoly districts had over resident populations. If indeed, this has exacerbated the racial balances, that’s a problem to be taken on, but let’s not confuse that with the purpose of the open enrollment law enacted in the 80s.

  10. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/11/2013 - 08:44 pm.

    is choice is the issue why ….

    are the choices being made that give us the statistics staring us in the face ? The statistics sure bring the issue of race directly to the surface. If it’s the choice is being made because of better schools then what makes the better schools the better schools ? Can we should we have a discussion on race ? In this country of always present and never ending gruling take no prisoners zero sum game competition at every level it is time or we will implode. Denying will get us our demise.Step away from the starting line tske a breath and discuss.

  11. Submitted by Ashley Bullock on 02/11/2013 - 06:01 pm.

    St. Paul Schools Re-Segregation

    That must be why the St. Paul schools are severely limiting school choice this year. They say they’re doing it to promote community schools, but the St. Paul NAACP had some serious concerns about how the St. Paul schools interpreted study data and integrated that data into what amounts to a re-segregation plan for St. Paul.

    A quick look at the school area boundaries and the transportation plan shows that the St. Paul schools are segregating the students by race and income. In addition, the schools are now instituting a “pathway” system whereby a student enrolling in middle school is automatically placed on a pathway to a specific high school. When you consider that just 2 of the St. Paul middle schools are IB/MYP schools and that both are in white, upper income neighborhoods, it becomes easy to see that this is segregation under cover of ‘strong communities’.

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