Since at least the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling set into motion school integration efforts, public education has been a focus area for the fight to end racial segregation in American society.
Today, most districts that had court-issued desegregation orders issued in the wake of that ruling are no longer under them, but that hasn’t ended questions about racial integration in the public schools, or the expectation that school boards would work to mitigate this ongoing problem.
Wondering how, absent a legal mandate, school districts were doing on their integration efforts prompted University of California, Berkeley economics PhD candidate Tomas Monarrez to design a study to determine whether school districts were more or less segregated than their surrounding neighborhoods.
Monarrez’s research was featured in a widely circulated Vox piece out last week. The piece generates maps and charts that help visualize the effect school district boundaries have on racial integration in major U.S. cities.
So how did Minneapolis and St. Paul fare? Monarrez found that the school districts in the Twin Cities appear to do slightly more than average to mitigate racial segregation in local housing patterns, leading to attendance boundaries that are a bit less segregated than if kids attended the school closest to their home.
But before you share the article and brag, note that it’s not by a whole lot.
Measuring desegregation efforts
Monarrez’s study works by comparing the racial makeup of elementary schools as school attendance boundaries exist (using data from 2013-14), to a hypothetical scenario where kids go to the school closest to where they live.
“We’re comparing two maps,” Monarrez said. “One is hypothetical and one is real. The hypothetical one is saying, ‘Hey, what if I literally just assigned everyone to their closest school and then measured the racial composition.’”
In the wake of Brown, districts across the United States implemented desegregation plans — largely through busing — that decreased racial isolation in schools reinforced by neighborhood segregation. Since then, many districts have backed away from post-Brown era busing efforts, and subsequent court decisions have limited what districts may do to achieve integration, while most of the court orders requiring integration have ended.
Patterns of residential segregation in Twin Cities housing go way back. As the population of African Americans increased in the Twin Cities during the Great Migration, redlining determined where they could buy homes. While formal redlining has been banned, there’s still a gulf between the economic opportunities available to white people and people of color in the Twin Cities (the median black household in Minnesota makes roughly half what the state median household makes, for instance), and other factors, that lead to segregation in neighborhoods.
Because the way people live is fairly segregated, sending kids to the closest school would reinforce the segregated manner in which people live. But neither Minneapolis nor St. Paul necessarily does that.
According to Monarrez’s research, Minneapolis’ neighborhoods had an integration index — a measure of how integrated neighborhoods are (the closer to 1, the better) of 0.85. Its school attendance zones had an integration index of 0.89. That means school zones are more integrated than neighborhoods, but just slightly.
Much of the difference between the two numbers can be explained by a couple schools located in largely white neighborhoods whose zones have relatively high minority populations, Monarrez said. But look to South Minneapolis, he pointed out, and you’ll see schools like Harriet and Burroughs (in 2017, they were about 85 and 77 percent white, respectively, according to MDE data).
“Those are really white in their neighborhood and how they’re zoned. Most districts have these kinds of things, even when they are desegregating schools, they have a couple schools that are white,” Monarrez said.
Minneapolis last re-drew its district lines in 2009. Prior to that redistricting, parents could send their kids across the district, with transportation covered. Now, there are three zones, and parents can send their kids to schools in-zone with transportation provided certain criteria are met, or to magnet or open schools outside their zone with transportation.
“It was designed to do a couple things,” said Pam Costain, a former Minneapolis School Board member involved in the re-draw. “To preserve choice, a very big priority in Minneapolis schools with Minneapolis parents, but (also) to try to reduce the cost of busing. We had full choice in the district up until then, and you could basically go anywhere — and it was millions of dollars in busing.”
Costain said reducing segregation was a priority, but acknowledges there is still segregation of African American students on the northside, and segregation of white students in the southwest part of the city. Across the eastern part of the city where neighborhoods are more diverse, she said, schools are more integrated.
Of course, kids in Minneapolis and St. Paul don’t always go to school in their neighborhoods or even their home district. Under state open enrollment law, parents in Minnesota may enroll their kids in a school district they don’t live in, provided there’s space and the family provides transportation.
Through open enrollment, Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools have been losing students to charter schools and suburban districts in recent years.
Though families of color open enroll their children to other districts at higher rates than white families, some parents — oftentimes white ones — will pull their kids out of the district if the boundaries are drawn in a way they don’t like, presenting challenges for officials when drawing district lines, Costain said.
St. Paul’s neighborhoods are less segregated than Minneapolis’, according to Monarrez’s methodology. The integration index for St. Paul neighborhoods is 0.901, while the integration index for school attendance boundaries is 0.94.
If you look at the Vox map, a couple zones — particularly that surrounding Maxfield Elementary — sticks out as high-minority, Monarrez noted. Maxfield was 67 percent African American in 2017, according to MDE data.
After gathering input from the community and the NAACP, St. Paul last redrew district boundaries in 2011. The decision to do so was prompted by a couple things, said Jackie Turner, chief operations officer for St. Paul Public Schools: data showed students were choosing schools outside their neighborhoods, while students going to school closer to home were doing better academically. Also, busing students across the city was costing the district money that could have been spent in classrooms, she said.
Turner said integration was a major factor in drawing boundaries. She recalled instances, like one on the eastside, where officials drew lines — in this case south of a set of train tracks — in order to include higher poverty neighborhoods in specific zones.
So, how do Minneapolis and St. Paul stack up compared to the other districts Monarrez studied?
Nationally, he found the average neighborhood school hypothetical had an integration score of 0.93, more integrated than both Minneapolis and St. Paul, while the average actual school district attendance zones had an integration score of 0.94 (on par with St. Paul). Since the distance between those two numbers is 0.1, both Minneapolis and St. Paul’s boundaries appear to be doing more than the average district to mitigate underlying housing segregation.
The district doing best by Monarrez’s measure was in Springfield, Illinois, which remains under an integration order, he said (districts still under desegregation orders tended to have better integration scores). It had a neighborhood integration index of 0.821 and a school zone index of 0.978.
The methodology suggests a few districts, such as Dysart Unified School District, outside Phoenix, Arizona, appear to actually exacerbate underlying neighborhood segregation, seeming to send additional minority students to schools in high-minority areas, Monarrez writes. Its neighborhood integration index was 0.872, while its school zone index was 0.856.
It’s important for people to understand school attendance boundaries and the role they place in racial segregation and integration because — though transportation costs and geography are a factor — they can be changed, Monarrez said.
“A lot of the history of the United States has been about creating these boundaries between people of different backgrounds. It hasn’t been just schools, it’s been a history of redlining, and all of those things that have created racial segregation,” Monarrez said.