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

A program intended to integrate schools and balance academic opportunities for children of all races has resulted in increased racial segregation.

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

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.

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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.