Article IV of the Minnesota Constitution authorizes the governor to call the state legislature into special session “on extraordinary occasions.” Gov. Mark Dayton, citing the need to “address the serious disparities affecting Minnesotans of color,” wants to summon legislators back to St. Paul soon for such a special assembly. While it is doubtful how much meaningful progress can be made in tackling the North Star State’s shameful racial disparities during a brief, out-of-season session of the legislature, the governor is right that this is indeed an “extraordinary” problem in need of immediate attention.
While our state frequently finds itself sitting atop many national rankings we can be proud of, a major study this year found Minnesota had the worst economic disparity between white and minority citizens in the nation. That’s a disgrace for any state, let alone one with as proud of a civil rights history as ours.
One important driver of this economic inequality sources back to the poor job some Minnesota schools have done educating minority students. While 85 percent of white students graduate high school on time, fewer than 60 percent of the state’s black and Hispanic students receive a diploma in four years. And the rate for our Native American students is the second worst in the nation at 49 percent.
These reprehensible gaps are even more wrenching for our state’s largest city, Minneapolis, where just 41 percent of Hispanics, 40 percent of African-Americans and 34 percent of American Indians leave public schools on time.
Equal opportunity requires we provide the cornerstone of success – a quality education – to every single Minnesota child regardless of race or socioeconomic background. We should be ashamed that we are failing so in this most important of duties to our children.
More money for education?
So what do we do? Dayton maintains that we spend too little on education. A school’s poor performance, Democrats argue, is a symptom of scarce funding. But the math suggests otherwise.
Minneapolis’ miserably performing public schools are, in fact, among the best-heeled in the state. While the state spends an average of $11,089 per pupil, Minneapolis appropriates $21,000.
It is true that the Minneapolis Public School District has more students from families living at or below the poverty line than affluent suburban districts do and thus has unique challenges to face. But just because success is harder does not make it impossible.
Consider a special place called Hope Academy, a private, faith-based school located in a destitute neighborhood in South Minneapolis that has a student population that is 41 percent African-American, 33 percent Hispanic and 21 percent white. Hope has every hurdle of any Minneapolis public school; 77 percent of Hope families live near or below the poverty line. In fact, the percentage of low-income families represented at Hope Academy is higher than that of the Minneapolis Public Schools and more than twice the state and nationwide percentages.
Remarkably, however, 81 percent of Hope Academy’s students test at or above grade level in reading and 75 percent in math, compared to 28 percent and 24 percent respectively at neighboring public schools. 100 percent percent of Hope’s student body graduates on time and 95 percent of its alumni is headed to post-secondary institutions
And the cost for Hope to produce these astonishing results? Around $8,000 per student. When it comes to results, Hope Academy is outpacing — by leaps and bounds — its public counterparts and all with much less money.
To close the unacceptable achievement gap between white and minority students in Minneapolis, we need to make it possible for every one of them to leave failing public schools and get the kind of education Hope Academy or another private institution can offer. We can do that by embracing school choice and providing vouchers for low income families in failing school districts to attend the learning institution of their choosing. Abandoning public schools is not the correct course, but forcing them to compete with private institutions or shutter their doors is only fair to the families they are tasked to serve. Competition and choice will drive excellence.
I agree with Dayton that earmarking $15 million to further more equal opportunity in this state could be money well spent. But those funds should not go to building another community center or expanding government programs. Instead, that money should be distributed to low-income families in the form of vouchers so their children can attend the school – this year — that will serve them best.
Dayton was blessed with a top-notch secondary school education. Every Minnesotan should have that same opportunity.
Andy Brehm is a corporate attorney in Minneapolis and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the American Experiment.
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