Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

YWCA Minneapolis generously supports MinnPost’s Education coverage. Learn why.

Meaning of ‘segregation’ is central to charter schools’ concerns about new integration rules

Hennepin Elementary School
Students of Hennepin Elementary School pose for a photo.

The vast majority of the student body at Hennepin Elementary School, a charter school in Minneapolis, could be classified as African-American. But Executive Director Julie Henderson sees a wealth of diversity under this racial umbrella. Haitian, Kenyan, Ethiopian and Somali American students populate her classrooms, she wrote in a recent letter to the Minnesota Department of Education.  

Hennepin Elementary, along with all other public charter schools, is of course open to white students as well. The racial makeup of each charter’s student body is determined by the families who choose to enroll. Henderson’s perspective of diversity, however, hasn’t carried much weight with the state when it comes to addressing school segregation.

While many of her peers argue that segregation implies a lack of choice, others — including the state — consider it to be the separation of minority students from white students, regardless of choice. And that difference in perspective is at the heart of many charter schools’ concerns over new state integration rules.

The state frames segregation as a detriment to the public education system, linking the need to integrate with the need to address the achievement gap that persists between protected students ­— those who are black, Asian, Hispanic and American Indian — and their white peers.

This is the crux of a dispute that was highlighted in two days of procedural hearings last week on the Education Department’s new rules — rules that will cover charter schools for the first time.

How we got to this point

The state first developed an integration policy in the mid-1970s. Until recently, integration rules developed in 1999 served as the state standard. But policy makers realized these rules were in need of an overhaul.

According to the Education Department, although the total enrollment of students in the state has remained fairly stable, the percentage of protected students has nearly doubled in the last 15 years.

In response, in 2013 the state asked districts to develop individualized plans to address both stark achievement disparities and the lack of racial diversity. The Department of Education drafted rules to align with the new state statute. In doing so, the department decided it was time to bring charter schools into the fold.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, charters serving students of color outnumber those that have a mostly white student body. This divide has grown so deep that education researchers say only 16 of the metro area’s 72 elementary charter schools are integrated with a healthy mix
of white and minority students.

With a draft of the proposed rules ready for adoption, Administrative Law Judge Ann O’Reilly presided over a rulemaking hearing Jan. 6 and 7 at the Department of Education in Roseville. Taking testimony from concerned parties into account, she’ll have the final say on whether the department’s proposed rules are up to par, from a procedural standpoint.

Intentionally vague

While the funding formula is already laid out in statute, the rules define who is eligible for state integration funding — or those who will be required to submit a plan with measurable goals.

If approved, the new rules will require every district and charter school with a “protected student” population at or exceeding 20 percent to submit a three-year achievement and integration plan to the Department of Education.

The department doesn’t provide any specific criteria for what this plan should look like, but says the plan should include measurable goals and must be approved by the department. During the implementation phase, a commissioner will check in, annually, to evaluate progress.

Myron Orfield
Myron Orfield

Again, the evaluation process remains vague, leading many to assume it’s essentially unenforceable.

“It’s vague, arbitrary. There are no real requirements,” Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, told Judge O’Reilly at the hearing. “There’s nothing to it.”

Assistant Commissioner Daron Korte says the department is open to adding more detail if O’Reilly decides it’s necessary. But the vagueness was intentional, he says.

“One of the things we always wrestle with is being super descriptive, versus allowing for flexibility,” he said in a phone interview after the hearing.

Regardless, schools that may be impacted can’t ignore the fact the proposed rules are tied to state funding.

“At end of the third year, statute says the department determines if the district or school is not making sufficient progress toward goals in its plan. Then the commission can redirect 20 percent of their revenue to commission-directed strategies,” he said. “That’s kind of [the rule’s] teeth.” 

The ‘segregation’ debate

As the department works on preparing a written response to all concerns raised during the public hearing, Korte says there’s one important clarification that needs to be made up front: The integration rule is not targeted at busing students around to attain more racially balanced schools.

Assistant Commissioner Daron Korte
Assistant Commissioner Daron Korte

“There’s nothing in this rule that requires charter schools to change their enrollment methods. There’s nothing about enrolling a certain percent or quota of students of color or white students,” he said. “It’s going to be the charter schools themselves that come up with their own goals and their own plans.”

But an issue of integration in schools warrants a closer look at how vying local parties define segregation.  

The charter school community that showed up to the hearing largely takes offense to any suggestions that an all-black or all-Asian school would be deemed segregated in the first place. 

“Segregation is about not having a choice,” Eric Mahmoud, CEO of the Harvest Network of Schools, said in an interview before testifying. “The whole charter school movement is about having a choice. That’s a huge difference.”

Joe Nathan, longtime director of the Center for School Change and current Senior Fellow there, takes a similar position on what constitutes segregation in schools. During his testimony, he said being given the choice to attend an all-black school is not the same as being assigned to an inferior school based on race.

Joe Nathan

“It’s stunning to me that some argue white students should be allowed to attend all white schools, but students of color should not be allowed [to do the same],” he said.

Orfield, who directs the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, is equally opposed to the new rules, albeit for different reasons.

He interprets them as a lackluster way to move toward integration.

“All-white schools would only be affected if it could be shown they were recruiting whites away from integrated schools, and thus undermining the district’s efforts,” he said by email.

Overstepping bounds?

Both Orfield and charter representatives took issue with the lack of evidence-based research presented in support of the proposed rules. It’s a complaint the department isn’t very concerned about.

“We have a Legislature that put all the policy basically in the statute and directed us to fill in the blanks. We didn’t really need to undergo that extensive, scientific, scholarly analysis,” Korte explained. “We just needed to flesh out the details. We think we did that in the SONAR [Statement of Need and Reasonableness].”

Eric Mahmoud
Eric Mahmoud

Even so, charters aren’t pleased with this new encroachment on their autonomy. Looking at the revenue formula for the program — which includes both direct aid and levy components — they say there’s a lack of legislative intent to include charter schools in this integration initiative.

“Charter schools do not receive levy aid, and additional direct aid for charters has not been appropriated for the program,” Henderson said in her letter to the department.

In the interest of preserving their independence, charters are leery of condoning a state policy that presides over their student composition. Many worry the move could set an unwelcomed precedent. And anything that might jeopardize the future of charters where minorities are in the majority puts supporters on edge.

Choosing cultural specificity

Speaking as a mother, Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and president of the Minneapolis NAACP,  said her daughter’s intelligence was downplayed at a traditional public school. It wasn’t until she moved Jayda to a culturally specific charter that she started to excel.

Nekima Levy-Pounds
Nekima Levy-Pounds

“When I think of culturally specific charter schools, it’s important to recognize [that] as African-American parents, we have very limited choices on where to send our child … so their culture is being affirmed,” Levy-Pounds said at the hearing.

She denounced the notion that sitting students of color next to white students would somehow help close the achievement gap.

Mahmoud takes similar issue with integration efforts that are hyperfocused on mixing races.

“[The proposed rule] doesn’t apply to whites. They’re talking as if there’s something inherently bad in all Asian, African American, Hispanic students being in the same space, being educated,” he said. “Let’s not use a social solution to solve an educational issue.”

After a 20-day comment period, along with a five-day rebuttal period ending Feb. 3, Judge O’Reilly will have 30 days to draft a final report on the proposed rules. 

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/12/2016 - 02:12 pm.

    What rules?

    It would have been nice if Ms. Hinrichs had included a copy of the integration rules in question.

    I started kindergarten in 1954, the year when SCOTUS ruled that “separate but equal” public schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. Yet I attended the newest, most modern and well-equipped grade school in the city of St. Paul.

    Maxfield Elementary school was also in the heart of the predominantly black neighborhood where I lived. Many of the teachers were black and the students came from black families in the neighborhood that were intact, employed, and engaged in their kids’ lives by being scoutmasters, PTA members, and lay leaders in the neighborhood churches.

    My parents told me years later that we were so unlike the stereotype that had been painted by the court and the press that most couldn’t believe that the ruling even applied to us. And for good reason. Our school environment was so “equal” it was *more* than equal.

    It took years for Brown v. Board of Education to be implemented around here because the truth is, it disrupted more lives than it helped. Eventually, progress came along and the neighborhood was bulldozed, and with it the positive culture it nurtured. The rest is history.

    Fast forward to today. How do you racially integrate the city’s public schools when 77% of the students are non-white? Responsible parents, of every race and color, only want to send their kids to schools where they will thrive, which has come to mean, leaving the dysfunctional public schools. And yet once again, people with no skin in the game, no pun intended, are trying to set the rules based on meaningless criteria that only exposes their pathologies.

    The solution is, distribute school vouchers equal to the value currently being spent per student in the public schools, and let the parents decide where to send their kids, regardless of that school’s racial makeup.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 01/12/2016 - 05:43 pm.

      The MN Constitution provides for

      PUBLIC EDUCATION only. Not religious education, not private education.not charter school education. The answer? People that have kids pay for their kids’ education. Or limit the free ride for kids to 2 kids per family!!

      • Submitted by Michael Hess on 01/13/2016 - 09:39 am.


        Charter schools are public. This is well known. Anyone who chooses can send their kids to one. There is already variety in public schools with community schools, magnet schools, special focus programs, this is another flavor.

  2. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/12/2016 - 03:19 pm.

    Once again …

    the issue of socio-economic make-up of school population wether charter or public is nowhere in the discussion as it should be. Well I dare bring it. What are the socio economic statistics for charter families compared to public families ? Notice I said socio-economic. Where is the ttrue apples to apples comparison ? For integration to be complete this has be part of the discussion.

    • Submitted by Joe Nathan on 01/13/2016 - 05:51 pm.

      Your question

      Joe, you asked about the demographics of charter families. State department of education statistics for Minneapolis and for the state show that charters enroll a higher % of low income families, a higher % of students of color, and a higher percentage of students who don’t speak English in the home, that do the Minneapolis Public Schools, or Minnesota public schools.

      That’s because some students and families of color are not satisfied with district options. Other families of color and low income families are satisfied with district school options. We ought to be learning from the most effective public schools, whether district or charter.

    • Submitted by Lydia Howell on 01/17/2016 - 07:28 am.

      What about POVERTY?

      ECONOMICS is NOT ADDRESSED in some vague “integration” plan. It’s OVERDUE to STOP funding schools based on property taxes!!!! Make it ONE POT and EQUALIZE RESOURCES. That’s far more importnat than some vague plan to “racially integrate” schools. Yes. I WISH we had integrated schools but 60 yars after the Brown decision that’s obviously NOT happening and we can’t afford to fail more gerneations of children of color and poor children of all colors.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/13/2016 - 07:00 am.

    An observation

    …or maybe two…

    Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka centered around a question more philosophical than many of those quoted in the article would have the current local court (and Ms. Hinrichs) believe. That question was: Is segregation inherently bad? Does segregation label one group or another inherently inferior or superior to other groups? The SCOTUS answer in 1954 (“Yes.”) was straightforward, even if its solution (that segregation be ended “…with all deliberate speed”) was not.

    With that historical rationale in mind, and having spent a good many years teaching in a public school district that was desegregated by court order, the reasoning expressed by Ms. Levy-Pounds strikes me as specious. How is a minority family of color sending its minority child to a school so that her “culture” can be “affirmed” different from a white supremacist family sending its child of less color to a school so that *her* “culture” can be affirmed?

    Ms. Levy-Pounds may denounce the notion that racial and/or cultural integration is a legitimate means to address the area’s appalling achievement gap, but just because she doesn’t like it doesn’t make it so. There’s plenty of educational research that shows children of color – as well as children of less color – have better academic performance and outcomes in integrated classroom environments than they do in segregated ones. The arguments being made in favor of segregation in this instance are little different – intellectually – from the arguments made by supporters of George Wallace and other southern segregationists decades ago.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/13/2016 - 07:42 am.

    De-Segregation Works

    I’m fascinated that, although Nekima Levy-Pounds’ daughter seems to be doing well in her culturally-separate, segregated charter school,…

    Ms. Pounds is also taking a major and very vocal role in trying to force the Minneapolis School Board to operate the entire school system by her will and her sensibilities (as opposed to all others),…

    as they select a new superintendent.

    In reality, I’m not convinced that Ms. Pounds is interested in the well being of the vast majority of the students in the Minneapolis School System,…

    rather, I fear that she wants the school system to meet her OWN perceived needs and the needs of her daughter,…

    regardless of whether that has a negative affect on other students.

    Ms. Pounds does not seem to know, nor does she CARE to know that there are a wide variety of students and parents,…

    with a wide variety of needs and sensibilities,…

    all of whom have exactly the same right as she and her own daughter to have SOME of those needs met,…

    but ONLY some – since resources are always too scarce to meet the perceived needs of every student and parent.

    Ms. Pounds may take umbrage at the idea that “the notion that sitting students of color next to white students would somehow help close the achievement gap,”….

    but in fact this is exactly what the evidence shows.

    It was only when desegregation was allowed to lapse,…

    (i.e. made voluntary with the use of “magnet schools,” etc, which never worked well for that purpose),…

    that the achievement gap began, once again, to massively increase,…

    after it had retreated to some extent in response to desegregation.

    Of course the REAL underlying problem is scarcity of resources,…

    brought about by the lack of adequate funding to allow inner city schools to more adequately meet the far more extensive and varied needs of their students,…

    that’s the real problem here.

    In fact Ms. Levy-Pounds would, I suspect, be shocked to discover,…

    should she ever care to do so,…

    that non-black students with very high intelligence,…

    and a low tolerance for boredom and repetitive work,…

    have EXACTLY the same struggles in the Minneapolis (and other) public schools as her own daughter,…

    because those schools lack the resources to identify and challenge those students,…

    and to develop their intellect, which often far outstrips their peers,…

    because they tend to be unconventional, non-compliant, and don’t turn in neat, well-organized homework.

    When Ms. Levy-Pounds assumes that her daughter’s problems within the public schools were because her daughter was black,…

    and that ONLY in an all-black school can her daughter thrive,…

    she’s quite simply WRONG.

    ALL students with her daughter’s personality style and intellect have exactly the SAME problem in the public schools,…

    regardless of their race or country of origin,…

    because the schools do not have the resources to do anything but teach “to the middle.”

    There are far more students and families in our inner city school districts whose needs are not being met than her own.

    I can’t help but wonder what it says that her focus is so very narrow.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/13/2016 - 09:07 am.


    The fact that charters have re-segregated the school population shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Charter School movement emerged from the voucher movement which was specifically conceived as antidote for desegregation. Liberals bought into it during the magic markets innovation hysteria of the late 80s. Whatever.

    Here’s what we know today- MN’s education gap is larger than the US average and growing. So the question is simply whether or not these segregated charter schools are producing better results for their black students than the public schools? Everything I’ve seen tells us that by and large charters do NOT outperform their public counterparts regardless of parental brand loyalty. So where is the gap? Is the gap between segregated charter students and their public counterparts? (one way or the other) Is the gap across the board? In theory if segregated charters produce better results and close the over-all gap, you could support them. If not, you have question the utility of segregation.

    I would be suspicious of anyone who’s trying to redefine: “segregation” instead of pointing to outcomes, specially when someone is arguing that it’s outcomes not ethnic balance that matters in the first place.

  6. Submitted by Myron Orfield on 01/13/2016 - 01:34 pm.

    The story missed the central point

    In the Summer of 2014 Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s issued a legal guidance letter asserting that charter schools had to be included in court ordered or administrative desegregation plans. (see page 3 last paragraph) This had long been the position of every court that addressed this issue. There was only one state in the Union that had ever excluded charters schools from such plans –Minnesota. South Carolina for example required charters to be in such plans. Minnesota’s exclusion of charters was according to Arne Duncan illegal and after he issued his letter Minnesota had no choice but to eliminate this exception. The charter schools are challenging Arne Duncan’s legal guidance. If Minnesota followed Duncan’s advice, it would prevent a charter school from undermining an existing desegregation plan — that’s all. This is the way the rest of the country does things and charters are alive and well under Arne Duncan’s rule.

  7. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 01/13/2016 - 06:01 pm.

    US Dept of Edu has honored many charters that are all or virtual

    Actually, Myron, as pointed out during testimony last week, the US Department of Education has repeatedly honored charters that are 99-100% students of color – actively chosen by families with their top (Blue Ribbon) awards.

    This data is readily available at the US Dept of Education website describing Blue Ribbon Schools:

    How ironic that you raise no objection to white people in Minnesota choosing to send their children to district public schools that are 90% or more white – but you continuously object to people of color having the option to send their children to a charter public school that reflects their culturally identify.

    Why is it ok for white families to have that option but not families of color?

  8. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/13/2016 - 10:42 pm.

    I do not see …

    What you are saying with this statement …

    How ironic that you raise no objection to white people in Minnesota choosing to send their children to district public schools that are 90% or more white – but you continuously object to people of color having the option to send their children to a charter public school that reflects their culturally identify.

    I believe the discussion is about charters needing coming to terms with needing to integrate. Your statement is actually off topic. Let keep the discussion on the benefits to integration to everyone.

  9. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 01/14/2016 - 10:09 am.

    This subject is what educational options will families have

    Joe, for the dozens of people of color who testified at the hearing, the subject was why is MDE fine with permitting white people to send children to schools that are 90-100% white, without making plans that MDE would have to approve,
    MDE is NOT ok with allowing families of color something similar.

  10. Submitted by Myron Orfield on 01/15/2016 - 01:00 pm.

    response to Nathan

    We raised the very same objection to white schools that were create by boundaries that were foresee ably segregative as we did to the 18 very white charters that have undermined school desegregation efforts in Saint Paul, Eden Prairie, Osseo, Rosemount and other places. See our report Almost all of the charter testimony was by people who worked at charter schools. There were only few students and their testimony should be read by all interested in this topic.

  11. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/18/2016 - 12:08 pm.

    I hope that Joe Nathan and others like him who support continued racial and ethnic segregation in charter schools if it’s “by choice” understand that those of us who oppose such segregation by race or ethnic group always oppose also the charters that are mostly white and–keep this in mind–that CHOOSE to be mostly or all white.

    We oppose segregation, whoever does it.

    • Submitted by Joe Nathan on 01/20/2016 - 06:44 pm.

      What about virtually all white district schools

      No where in Ms. Sullivan’s statement was criticism of white parents who choose to attend district schools that are virtually all white. Why is this ok, but it’s not ok for families of color to have the option to select schools that reflect their color.

      Apparently Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Orfield think it’s fine for whites to attend district schools that are 90% white – it’s just not ok for people of color to attend charters that are virtually all people of color.

      By the way, the “Choice is Yours” program that was created to give families of color the option to attend a suburban school with mostly whites – has a very mixed record, according to outside evaluators hired by the Mn Dept of Education. That should remain an option – but clearly that effort to promote greater racial integration has not been a complete success.

  12. Submitted by John Miller on 01/19/2016 - 03:03 pm.

    A rose by any other name?

    It doesn’t smell sweet when charter schools are accused of segregation. But the charge around (and accurate definition of) that s-word word are key to this controversy. First, there’s de jure segregation, which charters do not practice nor–so far as I’m aware–have any intent to so practice. Of course, one could infer that, when a charter dedicates itself to affirming a certain ethnic-cultural heritage, that’s just code for keeping out kids that aren’t in that particular ethnic group. One could, of course, apply this supposition–and I would stress that it is only a supposition, as I believe every charter in Minnesota actively welcomes ALL students–to the Twin Cities German Immersion School (91.2% white, by current MDE statistics) as well as to charters that are almost all African American, Hmong, Native American, etc. But enrollment in ALL of these schools is based on choice, not coercion, and collectively they address a diverse set of community needs.

    So my question is: Is this segregation or is it diversity? It’s certainly not de jure segregation. But is it diversity? That is, doesn’t diversity mean having students attend multi-ethnic schools that reflect today’s America and today’s global world? I certainly think this is an admirable goal and highly worthy of support. But I also think that we’re looking at another kind of diversity here.

    For example, in a diverse America, isn’t it also a worthy goal for American Indians to learn Lakota or Ojibwe? Doesn’t it make our whole culture richer when students who have chosen to immerse themselves in American Indian culture and language grow into adults who will contribute insights and perspectives from their rich and profound traditions to our diverse society? Isn’t it appropriate that public schools or programs (district or charter) be created to meet the specific needs of such students?

    This is only one example, of course, which can be multiplied manifold. I happen to like (and applaud) both types of diversity. I am also very wary of drawing a causal connection that bases improved learning outcomes for “minority” students (I use quotes because there is no “majority” ethnic group in Minneapolis or St. Paul, for example, and in the next decade or two there very well may be none in the country as a whole) upon their schooling within a majority white setting. I don’t think one can say the research is unequivocal on this–nor, of course, are anecdotal accounts.

    What speaks loudest to me in this discussion–as a white (male) person, in the slow process of becoming more aware of my many unearned privileges–are the voices of students and families of color, who are objecting to being told what they can and can’t do (in their own “best interests,” of course–as if they cannot be trusted to figure these out for themselves)–especially when, under the proposed MDE rule, white students and families in suburban and rural districts all over the state can continue to attend schools that are practically homogeneously white.

    I would urge people to think deeply and carefully about this issue, and to listen respectfully to all the voices in this conversation.

  13. Submitted by Lela Alexandra on 01/19/2016 - 10:17 pm.

    ‘Segregation’ is central to charter schools’

    Hi, I have read several articles about segregation of white to black students. I think, with regards to rules , others are correct to say here that we need to hear the comments and suggestions of those concerned parents and students of how they really feel about the issues. For me, segregation is most likely similar to discrimination. I think, each student must be treated equally especially in terms off education.

Leave a Reply