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Task force on school integration policy hears sharp debate

Yesterday, national scholars on both sides of the debate over the constitutionality, educational value and cultural importance of the racial and ethnic integration of the schools gave testimony at the state Capitol.

Joining them was the architect of Minnesota’s last two legal challenges to school segregation, attorney Daniel Shulman, who criticized the state for failing to enforce the law and said he’s willing to go back to court to fix that.

Daniel Shulman
Daniel Shulman

In the 15 years since settlement of the more recent of the suits he pressed, Minneapolis Branch of the NAACP vs. State of Minnesota, et. al., local schools have re-segregated “to an unconscionable degree,” he told a state task force charged with considering the future of the state’s desegregation rule.

“An adequate education is not a segregated education,” he told the audience, composed of deeply divided policymakers. “Segregation is not equal because segregation is separate.”

Unintended outcomes
Under the terms if the settlement, hundreds of poor Minneapolis children have been bused to schools in western suburbs. But the trickle of progress has been swamped by a tidal wave of white flight, demographic change and lax enforcement of state integration laws, he said.

The status quo, in which so-called hyper-segregation has spread throughout metro area schools and lawmakers are considering doing away with programs to combat it, is the opposite of what he and others involved in the settlement intended.

“If parents come to me with complaints, I will file suit again,” he continued. “And I will do it for free because this is just that important.

“The incidence of an inadequate education falls 100 percent on the children who receive that inadequate education. It stunts their lives. And it has virtually no impact on those who created the inadequacy.”

Developing recommendations
It was the most dramatic meeting to date for the 12-member task force [PDF], appointed six weeks ago to develop recommendations to present to the 2012 Legislature, which will confront the knotty issue of whether to change the way the state encourages integration or scrap the rules and the funding used to pay for compliance.

Right now, Minnesota school districts engaged in voluntary integration efforts receive a per-pupil allowance to pay for everything from transportation to diverse magnet schools to cultural competency training for teachers. Because of a historical fluke in the law, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth receive much bigger payments than other districts, many of which struggle with similar concentrations of poverty — which in Minnesota is tightly correlated with race.

DFL lawmakers have long agreed the Integration Revenue Program needs fixing, but have been reluctant to take up the issue for fear their GOP counterparts would demand the program be scrapped instead. Which is exactly what happened during this year’s legislative session.

As a part of the shutdown-ending compromise, Gov. Mark Dayton, the staunchest integration proponent to hold that office in a long time, demanded that “policy” changes be stripped from the final education bill. In place of an end to Minnesota’s formal commitment to integration and immediate redistribution of the funding stream, Dayton negotiated creation of the task force.

Under the terms of that deal, earlier this fall state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius named six of its members; the other six were named by House and Senate leadership. Members include several lawmakers; former Minneapolis Superintendent Bill Green; University of Minnesota law professor Myron Orfield, whose Institute on Race and Poverty has conducted research on hyper-segregation and its effects; and Katherine Kersten, op-ed contributor to the Star Tribune and a fellow at the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment.

The constitutionality question
The first round of testimony at the hearing involved the constitutionality of using race as a factor in making such decisions as school attendance boundaries, busing policies and the creation of magnets and other programs designed to attract diverse populations.

A 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision [PDF] striking down school choice programs in Seattle and Louisville has widely been misinterpreted to say that districts cannot make race-based decisions. But local lawyers and legal scholars from Howard University and the District of Columbia Law School told the panel that this is not the case.

School systems cannot discriminate. And those that want to use race to make decisions about student placement must show the decision received “strict scrutiny,” a four-prong test that includes the consideration of race-neutral alternatives. If a decision survives the scrutiny, it must be narrowly focused and achieve a compelling governmental interest.

On Dec. 1, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice issued guidance on integration for K-12 schools and institutions of higher learning that rely on essentially the same legal interpretations the task force heard yesterday. Witnesses said they expected the new rules would spark changes throughout the country as districts, adrift about how to balance questions of equity with the interpretation of the decisions they had been given, make corresponding changes.

But even if the feds had not formally called for a continued emphasis on integration, several argued, the Minnesota Constitution’s guarantee of an adequate, uniform education for every child compels it.

“Desegregation is constitutionally required in all kinds of circumstances that I suspect exist in Minnesota,” said Howard University’s Derek Black. “The federal constitution prohibits intentional discrimination. The Minnesota Constitution prohibits inequitable delivery.”

The achievement-correlation question
While several of the witnesses said integration is a worthy goal in its own right, both for the welfare of the culture and the social benefits it confers on young people of all races, most agreed that there is a strong correlation between a school’s degree of integration and its students’ achievement.

Roslyn Arlin Mickelson
Roslyn Arlin Mickelson

Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, a professor of sociology, public policy, women & gender studies and information technology at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, presented findings from a meta-analysis of 500 studies looking at the relationship between race, socioeconomic circumstance and educational outcomes. School composition contributes “significantly” to student outcomes, she said.

Arguing the opposite was David Armor, a professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University and a frequent witness in desegregation and educational adequacy lawsuits throughout the country. Appearing by speakerphone, Armor testified that there is no correlation between integration and academic achievement.

Indeed in Minneapolis, in the 14 years between the 1983 start of court-ordered integration and 1996, when Shulman filed his second educational adequacy suit, the black-white achievement gap actually widened, said Armor, who was involved in the case.

Sharp exchange on findings
Late in the hearing, Armor and Mickelson had a sharp exchange that sheds some light on their seemingly disparate findings. Mickelson charged that Armor’s research was carried out as a part of his consultancy with various court cases and was not peer reviewed.

Further, she said, it was outdated. Changes in information gathering and other practices make studies performed during the last 20 years much more accurate.

Nor was it as categorical as he suggested, she said. In a 2006 presentation to the United States Civil Rights Commission [PDF], Armor found evidence of a relationship between school composition and academic progress in four states.

In turn, Armor insisted that Mickelson’s methodologies are too complicated. 

With such basics as the value and constitutionality of integration still dominating the agenda, can a politically divided task force come up with creative ways to end the legislative deadlock? It won’t be long before the answer is clear.

The task force meets again on Jan. 10. It is expected to come up with recommendations in time for the start of the next legislative session on Jan. 24.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/21/2011 - 10:37 am.

    David Armor brought valuable insight and a much needed thoughtfulness to these proceedings.

    The record is clear; if the goal is better academic outcomes, forced de-segregation does not fulfill the mission.

    Also, given the abject failure his previous efforts resulted in, it seems reasonable to question just whose best interests Daniel Shulman’s involvement is meant to serve.

    His “free” legal services have cost the state and government schools untold millions of dollars, which, the record shows has returned little to nothing for those whom it was ostensibly meant to benefit.

  2. Submitted by pattrice jones on 12/21/2011 - 11:31 am.

    Thanks for such an informative post on this important issue. I am struck by Armor’s dismissal of improved research methodologies as “too complicated.” It *is* a complicated process to assess and sort all of the potentially relevant variables, watching out for counfounding variables. Mickelson and others who have devised elegant ways of doing so ought to be complimented rather than condemned. But, this is the kind of anti-intellectualism we have come to expect–even from college professors, evidently!–from the right.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/21/2011 - 12:42 pm.

    “An adequate education is not a segregated education”

    Excuse me? As someone who went to predominantly black schools growing up, I resent this fundamentally racist statement.

    Beasley Academic Center, McDade Classical School, the Shoesmith School, and the Pershing School are four of Chicago’s all-black schools that have reading scores at the level of the best schools in the city. And high schools like Wendell Phillips Academy and Urban Prep are black segregated high schools that send almost 100% of their graduates on to college. Google Chicago’s all-black schools.

    It’s not about race, sir. It’s not even about poverty. It’s about expectations and how kids achieve or don’t achieve based on adult expectations.

  4. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 12/21/2011 - 01:43 pm.

    Suppose your child could not add or subtract fractions, especially if the denominators of the fractions were different. No matter how hard your child tried, he couldn’t figure out how to find a common denominator.
    To solve this math achievement problem and other academic achievement problems, your school district decided to move Hispanic, black and Native American children, and children from very poor neighborhoods into your child’s classroom. How will the presence of these other children help your child understand how to add or subtract fractions? How will your child’s presence help the children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds with their academic achievement?
    I can’t understand why so many people think academic achievement can be attained with intergration. There doesn’t seem to be any connection.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/21/2011 - 09:36 pm.

    When did integration become about all academic achievement? Maybe we should look back at the arguments for it’s exitistence. Academic achievement was only a component at what gave us integration. How can one separate all the statistical data out there regarding inequity and only point to academic achievement ? Doesn’t seem to be in the best interests of coming to a solution.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/21/2011 - 10:35 pm.

    Messrs. Swift and Tester, and Ms. Kohls, can protest all they want. The Minnesota Constitution is more clear than most state constitutions regarding this question of uniformity and equity, and more than half a century ago the SCOTUS determined that separate *is* unequal. Inherently so.

    For a change, I’m in some degree of agreement with Mr. Tester when he says “It’s not about race…” My classroom experience as a teacher supports that notion to some degree. Some of my best students were white. Some were black. One was from Iran. When I was teaching, my school had very few oriental or Hispanic kids in attendance, so I can’t speak to those groups.

    That said, however, I can’t agree with Mr. Tester’s second point. It *is* about poverty. I don’t claim any demographic expertise in my newly-adopted state of Minnesota, but until I see evidence to the contrary, the assertion in the article that poverty and race are closely correlated in Minnesota is in line with historical associations and correlations all across the country. If that’s the case in Minnesota as well, and the state is not an outlier of some sort in that regard, then poverty, race, and academic achievement are rather closely related here.

    If that’s the case, then segregation, whether accidental or on purpose, whether based on race or economics, has the same pernicious effect.

    Mr. Tester’s assertion regarding expectations is partially correct, but only partially. The adults involved in those expectations have to be on the same page, and recently, the assumption I’m reading into many comments from those who call themselves “conservative” is that it’s the teachers’ expectations that have fallen. I beg to differ. Parents living in poverty often have little education themselves, and have limited knowledge – sometimes none, in my experience – of what academic expectations are about, or what they’re for. It’s not that they have no hopes for their children, it’s that their own horizons are limited to begin with.

    My experience – increasingly dated, but it’s all I have to go on at the moment – was that the “crabs in a bucket” syndrome, whereby talented minority kids are ostracized, bullied, even punished by their peers for actually doing well academically, has a powerful and systematic effect. Culture matters. Even if teachers and parents *want* the kids to succeed, it’s difficult for the kids to do so if the informal, social culture of their peers in that school is such that academic achievement is somehow seen as an ethnic betrayal.

    Much tends to be made – and perhaps correctly so – of the academic standards and preparations of a school staff, but I see very little in popular media that addresses the social aspects of school, especially at the secondary level, but not excluding even the primary grades. Every little boy and girl wants to be liked, to have friends and playmates, and if the kids they associate with have few academic skills themselves, or are hostile to their acquisition, it will require an unusual degree of courage for a 6-year-old – or a 16-year-old – to ignore social pressures from their peers to blow off the academics at school and focus instead on the several other arenas available, from dressing stylishly to listening to the “right” music to dating the right people, etc.

    Segregation aggravates all these issues. The more poverty-stricken the school and its students, the fewer peer role models there are for its kids to observe. The last studies I read about student body makeup suggested that a mixture of ethnic groups and academic achievement levels had the effect of improving the achievement of both whites and blacks, but it depended upon what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call a “critical mass.” There have to be enough good students, vested in getting a good education from the faculty and course work, to encourage the poorer students to make the necessary effort to succeed.

    As Mr. Tester suggests with his Chicago examples – and as the current President illustrates uniquely – individual motivation can make all the difference in the world, but it doesn’t appear out of thin air. Some kids have unusually dedicated parents. Others do not. Some are inexplicably able to see past the corrosive popular culture and the false promise of athletics to something deeper, but the numbers of them who do so are small. Some teachers can work an occasional miracle – I worked a few myself – but to expect every teacher to turn every student into an academic success entirely through that teacher’s own efforts borders on the delusional.

    My experience was that integration works, socially and academically, but only if a concerted and long-term effort is made by everybody involved, meaning all the adults, as well as all the kids. Like a marriage, you have to work at it if you want it to succeed.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/22/2011 - 09:57 am.

    “When did integration become about all academic achievement?”

    The thoughtful reader might be taken aback by what looks, at first read, blunt cluelessness in that statement; but *I* understand where musich’s thinking is revolving. Oddly enough, it is that exact idea that launched my political activism.

    Back in 1999, our three sons were attending Groveland Elementary School in Mac-Groveland neighborhood of Saint Paul. Middle son was struggling with reading and writing, and we had hired a private tutor to work with him in the evenings.

    One day, middle son came home with a permission slip for us to sign which would allow him to participate in something called “Urban Connections”. This entailed a bus trip to Stillwater elementary every Wendsday, hence the permission slip.

    I went to speak with his teacher to find out what this was. She explained that it was a chance for kids from an “urban” environment to interact with kids from different socio-economic backgrounds. She informed me that the plan included a program of “pen pal” correspondence between what she assured me was sure to become a new group of bestest pals.

    Now some readers may know that Mac-Groveland is a solidly upper middle-class neighborhood, which, for all I could see was pretty much like the Stillwater area they were planning to ship my kid to every week. I questioned teacher about this, and she alluded to the “kids that were being transported to attend Goveland from ‘other areas'”…she meant the hmong, hispanic and black kids being bussed in from Frogtown.

    My head was starting to spin at this point, but not wanting to get into a protracted discussion on how utterly stupid this program sounded to me, I instructed the teacher to have my son spend “Urban Connection day” working on his reading and writing; win-win thought I, but no.

    After I rebuked her attempts to convince me how wonderful an opportunity this was for my son, and how damaging being left behind would be to his self-esteem, she simply refused to honor my request.

    No problem thought I, on to the Principal to get this taken care of; but oops! I soon learn that teacher and Principal have been sharing the same kool-aid glass. Principal wants to meet with my wife and I together to enlighten us……..hoo-boy…

    Cutting to the point, my wife and I pulled all three kids out of Groveland the following week, and enrolled them in a private school from which they eventually moved on to a private high school.

    See, we immediately realized the fact that they were wasting my son’s valuable time, to say nothing of the sums that we were paying to suppliment his education, was completely lost on that staff. They really, truly believed it was *more important* for minority kids to mingle with what the staff took to be a more affluent group of white kids than my son’s academic education.

    Digging deeper over the next few years, I became absolutely apalled at the depth and expense and effort that was being put into socio-economic experimentation in SPPS; all while academic achievement was really starting to head into the tank.

    It was a crash course on leftist world-view which changed all of our lives for the better.

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