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Still no hearing on integration, despite bipartisan recommendations

A task force approved continuing formal desegregation efforts under a new system of financial checks and balances.

DFL members of the House Education Finance Committee are still waiting for a hearing on school integration.

Last week as the Legislature was preparing to adjourn for spring break, Rep. Mindy Greiling (Roseville) learned that a hearing on the future of integration in Minnesota schools that she and fellow DFLer Carlos Mariani (St. Paul) had been requesting for weeks would be held on Monday, April 16, at 10:15. For a moment, she was pleased.

Rep. Mindy GreilingRep. Mindy Greiling

Like other DFLers, she had spent much of the session protesting House GOP leaders’ strategy of scheduling and rescheduling hearings from one day to the next, holding hearings at which no one was heard and gaveling the hearings they did have open and shut literally within seconds, before all members could be seated.

To be sure, the hearing in question would take place after the April 5 deadline for bills to pass out of committee, but it was a hearing nonetheless. And one on a topic, school desegregation, Greiling knew lots of constituents had asked to be heard.

She and Mariani were determined to draw attention to the work of a committee appointed last year as part of the shutdown-ending compromise between Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP lawmakers, who could not agree on the future of the state’s efforts to desegregate schools.

During the 2011 session, Republican lawmakers voted to scrap Minnesota’s policy of pushing for integration and the funding stream that went along with it. DFLers agreed that the funding system needed an overhaul, but wanted desegregation to remain a policy priority.

Panel acted promptly

Few people had much faith that the bipartisan task force appointed to consider the program’s future was anything but an attempt to kick the can down the road. But then in February, the panel delivered a set of recommendations for continuing formal desegregation efforts under a new system of financial checks and balances.

Rep. Pat GarofaloRep. Pat Garofalo

Never mind that he was one of the task force’s creators, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, spent the ensuing weeks ducking questions from Greiling, Mariani and a host of public-school parents about when Garofalo’s powerful House Education Finance Committee would hold a hearing on the report.

Greiling’s pleasure at learning that the issue would finally be taken up was short-lived. When she opened her datebook to pencil in the date she realized the hearing would take place at the same time she was scheduled to receive an award for her life-long education advocacy work from the very citizen-activists who wanted to testify, the education advocacy group Parents United.

Pointed out conflict

She crossed the room at the Capitol where she was and pointed out the conflict to Garofalo and the committee administrator. “They didn’t seem a bit concerned,” she said yesterday.

As of late yesterday afternoon, neither Greiling nor the co-chair of the task force, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Integration and Educational Equity Coordinator Scott Thomas, had any idea whether the hearing had in fact been scheduled and, if so, when.

Garofalo told MinnPost the hearing is being scheduled for next week. “Gov. Dayton did not include any legislation regarding the Integration Task Force in his supplemental finance budget or policy bill,” he said. “The committee has focused on paying back the money borrowed from schools, on ending LIFO (last in, first out) and making school district compensation policies more favorable to those defending our country in active duty.”

Yet it was the Legislature, Greiling pointed out, that appointed the task force. “The idea that they would not get a hearing is shocking,” she said. “I think the real goal of even having this fallback last year was so that this task force could fail.”

Who knew the 12 members of the committee — half appointed by Dayton and half by GOP lawmakers — would fail to understand that their mission was in fact not policy but politics?

A 10-2 vote to keep rule and funding

Over the course of four months, the task force heard from 41 local and national experts on integration and the achievement gap called by both sides. In the end, 10 of the 12 voted to keep the rule and the accompanying funding, some $108 million a year, and to build in the long-sought accountability measures.

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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.

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.

Dissenting recommendations

Co-Chair Peter Swanson, an attorney appointed to the panel by the GOP, is the author of one of the two dissenting recommendations. He was persuaded that integration is a worthy goal and supports the program’s continuation but wanted to be on record calling for even stricter oversight.

Conservative Sunday Star Tribune columnist and Center for the American Experiment Fellow Katherine Kersten, also a House appointee, authored the other dissenting opinion. Her own research found that integration does not help to close the achievement gap and can be harmful. About a week after the task force tendered its recommendations, Kersten was invited to discuss her new report on the issue, “Our Immense Achievement Gap,” before the state Senate Education Committee.

Concerning a House hearing, Garofalo first told the Pioneer Press he was waiting for state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius to craft a proposal based on the recommendations. “There are a lot of empty boxes that need to be filled in,” he told the newspaper. “The devil will be in the details.”    

Next, Mariani authored a bill incorporating the recommendations that Garofalo’s committee never took up. When it still hadn’t been heard in late March, with the deadline for 2012 bills to pass out of committee looming, Mariani offered the language as an amendment to the omnibus education finance bill.

Mariani’s amendment rejected

When the amendment was rejected by a party-line vote, he and Greiling pressed Garofalo publicly to set a date.

Does it matter at this point whether the issue is heard? According to Parents United, the recommendations could still be included in the bills being sent to the full House and Senate, but the chance is remote.

More likely the stage is being set for next year. If lawmakers don’t adopt the task force’s recommendations or another set by then, the integration revenue program will “sunset,” or fade from state statute books, at the end of fiscal year 2013.

Money will continue to flow

Ironically the underlying funding will not, task force co-chair Thomas pointed out. Because the program is funded by non-voter-approved local levies tied to a state match, the money will continue to flow — but without any restrictions whatsoever.

Indeed, because the money’s availability now is tied to a threshold level of segregation instead of the accountability crafted by GOP task force members, who wanted administrators to show results in exchange for continued funding, districts will have a perverse incentive to perpetuate segregation, he said.

“Bipartisan recommendations are few and far between,” Thomas said. “To see the Legislature acting along party lines is extremely disheartening.”