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Education equity: What’s ailing Minnesota?

Two bills in the Legislature take welcome steps toward equity, but don’t go far enough.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Minnesota has one of the nation’s worst education achievement gaps between black and white students. In 2019, it ranked 50th for racial disparities in high school graduation rates. The Minnesota Report Card highlights the wide gaps in teachers and staff count, and math and reading achievement levels between white students versus Black and Latinx students due to systemic injustice.

The Minnesota Legislature has bills in the Senate (SF 446) and the House (HF 217) — the Increase in Teachers of Color Act — which when signed into law are hoped to create the comprehensive systemic change that is needed to ensure students of color have teachers who reflect their experiences and/or identities, which has proven to result in higher student achievement. There is no doubt that the bills will play a huge role in improving equity in our education. School districts hire a substantial number of non-teaching staff, who also play an important role in the students’ performance. In my opinion, the bills should also include a line about increasing the percentage of staff of color. While SF 446 has bipartisan support, HF 217 is partisan with all 21 authors being Democrats.

While a welcome first step, the bills do not go far enough in addressing the root cause of educational inequities. The current versions of the bill address one piece of institutional racism – the inequitable hiring practices that lead to bias. There is also structural racism – one example of which is school funding that relies on taxes (both property and state) – which plays a substantial role in creating inequity.

The tax-base issue

Jeff Raikes, former CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, describes the effect of structural racism in detail in a 2019 edition of Forbes. The tax base of a school district determines school funding. Nationally, school districts attended predominantly by students of color receive $23 billion less in funding, amounting to $2,200 less per student per year for students of color. These school districts require more, not less, in resources. School funding causes an effect similar to redlining. Black and Hispanic students are deprived of the foundation of learning, depriving them of the ability as adults to afford houses in expensive neighborhoods. They thus eventually end up contributing less to school funding, and the vicious cycle continues.

When this discriminatory model is corrected, the impact is significant. Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina and California have shown promising results with adjustments to the funding model. Illinois passed SB 1947 in 2017 to tackle its equity gap.

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I am a first-generation immigrant who came to the U.S. in pursuit of a doctorate. Although I have not experienced K-12 education in this country, my children, both of whom were born in the U.S., completed their K-12 education in the Wayzata School District, eventually graduating from Wayzata High School. The Wayzata School District funding is supported by a very strong tax base with high-priced homes and high median family incomes. My children availed of the best educational resources, and never had to worry about where to get the money for their developmental activities.

In Minneapolis, less funding

Upon graduating from college, both my children started teaching in Minneapolis in schools where students of color and those from low-income families were the vast majority. These schools lacked the funding that my children were lucky to have during their school days. For instance, my daughter was able to attend Wolf Ridge in middle school without worrying about how and who was going to pay for it. However, her students in fifth grade did not have access to the same resources because of systemic barriers. The teachers had to spend several hours raising money via baked goods sales and other activities so that their students could attend the camp — time that they could have spent more effectively in the class rooms.

Milind Sohoni
Milind Sohoni
Similarly, my son taught in a high school where the students shared similar demographics with the elementary school described above. The school had no Advanced Placement classes, which my son was able to take in Wayzata High School. AP classes have been shown to improve high school graduation rates. The school also had the cafeteria and the gym in one room, rather than in discrete areas as found in better funded schools like Wayzata High School. Lack of facilities is known to affect morale and performance. Other areas where poorly funded school districts could use help are the renovation of school buildings, and better access to technology — broadband internet, and laptops.

The bills will require school boards to adopt a comprehensive, long-term strategic plan to support and improve teaching and learning that is aligned with creating the world’s best workforce. The Legislature will do full justice to equity issues by amending the bills to include wording wherein the state’s budget for education be reapportioned to reflect the needs of these students, thereby providing the same tools to students across the state and giving them the opportunity to compete on a level playing field. The future of our state, and country, lies in the hands of all students, no matter the color of their skin.

Milind Sohoni, Ph.D., is a first-generation immigrant from India, having settled in the U.S. for 37 years. He has two grown children working in the education field, dedicated to marginalized communities. 

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