Just when you thought hardly anyone in the state Legislature could spell compromise, much less produce one, a panel of deeply divided ideological and philosophical foes goes into a windowless subbasement chamber and forges a policy prescription pretty much all are pleased with.
This morning, after a few typos are eliminated from a final round of PDFs, the members of the Integration Revenue Replacement Task Force will transmit their recommendations to state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who will then seek to have the document introduced at the Legislature.
The recommendations carry the endorsement of such presumed opponents as University of Minnesota law professor Myron Orfield, a relentless integration advocate, and Lakeville School Board member Bob Erickson, a fiscal conservative.
Victory, in this instance, was snatched not from the jaws of defeat but from the yawning maw of gridlock.
During last year’s legislative session, GOP lawmakers voted to get rid of the law compelling Minnesota school districts to work toward racial and socioeconomic integration both with their neighbors and within their own borders. They also moved to eliminate the funding stream supporting anti-segregation efforts.
Gov. Mark Dayton rejected the change, along with a host of other major education policies. In the settlement that ended the ensuing state government shutdown, the governor and lawmakers appointed a series of task forces to examine some of the more contentious issues the two sides could not agree to.
Half selected by GOP lawmakers
Under the terms of the deal, half of the panel’s 12 members were to be named by Cassellius and half by GOP lawmakers. The group was to formulate recommendations concerning the Integration Revenue program to be considered by lawmakers during the current session.
Few expected anything but more gridlock. But the group got down to work in November and, after 41 witnesses and massive doses of good faith, today is forwarding Cassellius a bipartisan recommendation adopted by 10 of the 12 to keep the rule and the accompanying funding, some $108 million a year, and to build in the long-sought accountability measures.
“We knew that it was going to be a challenge,” said task force co-chair Peter Swanson, an attorney appointed to the panel by the GOP-dominated House of Representatives. “But we wanted to have credibility.”
Swanson is the author of one of the two dissenting recommendations; conservative Sunday Star Tribune columnist and Center for the American Experiment Fellow Katherine Kersten, also a House appointee, authored the other.
The renamed Achievement and Integration for Minnesota program would continue to prohibit intentional segregation in schools, maintain the current definitions of racial isolation for schools and districts and require districts to work toward eliminating racial disparities.
Plan would change funding formula
The plan would fix the outdated funding formula, which directed the lion’s share of the funding to Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth and unintentionally resulted in large but relatively homogenous districts receiving more than low-income melting pots like Brooklyn Center.
It mandates that 80 percent of the money be spent for the direct benefit of students, and would direct the highest levels of funding to districts that demonstrate progress toward integration and closing the achievement gap.
In the past, the money flowed whether it was getting results or not. Similarly, some districts spent their integration revenue on administrative programs, cultural competency training and other items that did not directly further the goal of ensuring that students have the opportunity to learn within a diverse environment.
In 2005, the Legislative Auditor recommended [PDF] changing the funding formula and adopting oversight and accountability measures. Lawmakers routinely resisted taking up the issue, chiefly because DFLers feared providing Republicans an opening to kill the funding stream altogether.
Scholars and attorneys lauded
The author of a body of research showing that Twin Cities schools are more segregated today than they were in 1968, the year race riots swept the country, Orfield credited the star-studded lineup of scholars and attorneys the panel heard from for convincing its members of the benefits of integration.
“We were sent to solve legitimate concerns,” said Orfield. “This seems to solve everyone’s problems.”
At the time of their appointment last fall, some of the task force’s members shared the public’s perception that their work was an attempt to postpone a painful fight. “There was a sense the [lawmakers and the governor] kicked the can down the road,” said Swanson. “We felt like there was no one else for us to kick the can to.”
Members were thus determined from the start to produce one majority opinion instead of two partisan sets of recommendations, said Swanson. One of the committee’s first moves was to adopt a “supermajority” rule under which whatever it produced had to pass by eight votes.
Results decided in 10-2 vote
“It may have been unnecessary, because ultimately we decided 10-2, or it may have been what got our noses to the grindstone,” said Swanson. “We knew we couldn’t just wait until someone was absent or pick off someone on the other side.”
Erickson, who went into the process assuming agreement would be elusive, agreed that the process contributed to generating a balanced set of recommendations. “I thought it would have been closer to a split vote,” he said.
Erickson also credited the long list of witnesses heard from for helping the panel forge a broad agreement. “We had at least 40 presenters,” he said, representing “a range of involvement in the integration and equity process from the academician standpoint to the hands-on educator standpoint.”