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School integration’s health impacts are significant and lifelong, study finds

Outcomes among black students were particularly affected by changes in access to school resources associated with desegregation, the report said.

Children who attend integrated schools are more likely to graduate from high school, earn better incomes and raise their own children in circumstances that position them for school success, according to the report released by Isaiah.

School integration in Minnesota is closely tied to individuals’ lifelong health on several levels, according to a study released Monday by a coalition of Twin Cities congregations [PDF].

Children who attend integrated schools are more likely to graduate from high school, earn better incomes and raise their own children in circumstances that position them for school success, according to the report released by Isaiah, a group of 100-plus faith communities focused on social equity.

U.S. college graduates live up to 6.8 years longer than those who don’t graduate from high school. And their longer lives are healthier, too.

“For example, increases in unemployment rates over the past year have been greatest for adults who have not completed high school,” the report notes. “The unemployment rate for high school dropouts is 50 percent higher than for high school graduates. People who are unemployed experience poorer health and higher mortality rates.

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“More years of school have been shown to lead to higher incomes. Higher incomes afford a person and his or her family the benefit of economic security and wealth accumulation, which make it easier to obtain health care when needed, healthy food, physical activity, and a home in a neighborhood with resources like supermarkets, parks, and playgrounds.”

Conversely, the report notes, “the lower a person’s income the greater the likelihood they will experience stress because lower-paid workers have fewer financial resources to cope with everyday challenges.”

Hoping for legislative efforts’ success

Isaiah hopes the results of the health impact assessment, conducted with the California-based Human Impact Partners, will inspire state lawmakers to at least pass — and preferably broaden — a series of measures aimed at strengthening school integration.

School desegregation is typically framed as an issue of justice for children of color, said Anna Lynn, co-chair of Isaiah’s Health Equity Team. She hopes the research will nudge policymakers to see it as one element in creating a healthy and prosperous Minnesota for all.

Integration “is not the only piece, but it’s a critical piece,” Lynn said. “There’s no magic ratio.”

Isaiah has been working to highlight the health effects of different public policies for several years, Lynn explained. A recent project estimated the health effects of transportation on residents of St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, for instance.

“It’s part of a larger project Isaiah has been doing to look at the social determinants surrounding health care,” she added. “It’s really more of an organizing tool.”

Every Minnesota lawmaker received a copy of the group’s school-integration report Monday. Isaiah leaders already have testified before both the state Senate and House of Representatives and shared early impressions with the integration revenue bill’s main authors, DFLers Rep. Carlos Mariani of St. Paul and Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray of Minneapolis.

In addition, a number of coalition members last month had brunch at the governor’s mansion to talk about their work.  

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Seeking holistic approaches

A long-sought realignment of Minnesota’s school-integration efforts is included in the education omnibus bills in both legislative chambers. It’s a good start, Isaiah’s leaders said Monday, but lawmakers should be encouraged to think about the issue in a more holistic light.

Specifically, they fear that given this year’s long list of neglected policy priorities and the state’s still-depleted coffers legislators will feel pressured to pick between needy sectors. Health and education represent the two largest portions of the state budget, yet they should not be made to compete.

Educators and policymakers alike have long been concerned that the state’s rules requiring school districts to make efforts to ensure racial balance and the revenue stream that pays for those activities was too weak and had not kept pace with Minnesota’s changing demographics. 

Two years ago, the GOP-dominated Legislature eliminated both the rule requiring districts to work toward integration and the associated funding. As a part of the compromise that ended that year’s special session, the funding was extend until 2014 and a bipartisan task force appointed to consider the program’s eventual fate.

After hearing from dozens of witnesses, the task force issued a near-unanimous set of recommendations that would redirect the money to follow children of color, require districts to spend it on activities more closely tied to integration and achievement and to prove their efforts are bearing fruit. Even though the GOP’s Capitol leadership appointed half the panel, they refused to put the matter on the agenda last year.

Reframing the discussion

It’s great that integration has been a priority in both legislative chambers and of Gov. Mark Dayton’s, Isaiah’s leaders said yesterday. But it’s also a valuable opportunity to reframe the discussion.

They’re asking lawmakers to recognize that integration is just one tool in what should be a push for education equity. Racial and ethnic balance in schools is important, but Isaiah would like state policies to go further and “define integration holistically to include having children of differing races, 
ethnicities, and cultures together in schools and classrooms and supported by the policies and programs needed to achieve equity in education.”

The 67-page report compiles research that connects educational achievement with integration and assesses segregation in Minnesota schools. A 2011 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, followed children born between 1950 and 1970 who had been exposed to court-ordered desegregation.

By examining the long-term impacts of desegregation on high school graduation, earnings, involvement with the criminal justice system and adult health, the research concluded that integration’s impact was significant and lifelong.

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Greater access to school resources

The study also concludes that “the mechanism through which school desegregation led to these outcomes for black students was improvement in access to school resources reflected in reductions in class size and increases in per-pupil spending. [Education] and health outcomes among black students were particularly affected by changes in access to school resources associated with desegregation, not simply changes in exposure to white students.”

Some of the effects cited in Isaiah’s research are more subtle yet just as important.

“Research indicates that more education is associated with a greater sense of personal control and self-determination and this may be because education can lead to better problem solving, perseverance, and confidence,” the report notes. “These beliefs have associations with better self-rated health and less physical impairment and risk of chronic diseases.”

Finally, framing integration as an issue closely related to public health has a pay-it-forward aspect, the report notes. Adults’ education level has a lasting impact on their children.

“Lower educational attainment for parents limits their ability — because of knowledge, skills, time, money, and other things — to create healthy environments for their children and behaviors that kids can model,” the authors note. “Children’s health then affects their cognitive and behavioral development, which affects physical health directly and health behaviors indirectly.”