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State and educators can’t agree on how to spend integration funds

With the sharp decline in busing for integration, educators find themselves in a continual scramble to entice families to send their kids to diverse schools.

School buses -- long an urban symbol of cross-town integration efforts -- now are busy with other student transportation tasks.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
School buses — long an urban symbol of cross-town integration efforts — now are busy with other student transportation tasks.

Fourth of five stories

With integration’s traditional icon — the big yellow bus — a thing of the past, educators today find themselves in a continual scramble to entice families from a variety of races, ethnicities and socioeconomic levels to send their kids to diverse schools. Those efforts may no longer mean spending millions to transport kids to and from segregated neighborhoods, but it still costs money.

Five years ago, a state auditor told lawmakers that metro-area school districts were spending money intended to compensate for the costs of desegregation on questionable items. Reaction to the auditor’s findings was swift and bipartisan: The funding program and the policy to which it was tied were broken.

How to fix them? That debate has proven so fractious that year after year state education policymakers open up the topic, only to beat a hasty retreat.

Exchanging state stick for a carrot
Recognizing that achieving racial balance by sending kids to schools outside their neighborhoods made everyone unhappy, Minnesota a decade ago created a policy replacing the stick — numerical targets for each school and district — with a carrot: inducements to encourage educators and families to voluntarily take steps toward integration.

Make the educational programming attractive enough and integration will occur on its own. That’s the theory anyhow — one that Minnesota spends upward of $80 million a year promoting. Districts are supposed to use the special aid, known as integration revenue, to give students opportunities to get to know kids from other races and cultures. To that end, many spend the money on diverse magnet schools that serve students from communities that have chosen to work together to integrate.

Others, however, spent it on more dubious things, such as one-day multicultural fairs, social studies texts, summer soccer, Spanish classes and, in the most infamous example uncovered by critics of the funding program, “ethnic” art to hang on school walls.

In the months before this year’s legislative session convened, state Senate DFLers again held a series of hearings on the future of the integration revenue program, which compensates school districts for the costs of complying with the state’s desegregation rules. Without more specific instructions from the Legislature, Department of Education officials said they couldn’t provide school administrators better guidance on the money’s purpose.

Clarity is in short supply.

It took the Legislature the better part of the decade to arrive at Minnesota’s current approach to desegregation, which encourages school administrators to find ways to tempt families into sending their kids to diverse schools. No one on either side of the political aisle was entirely satisfied when the Voluntary Desegregation Rule went into effect in 2000.

Districts complain about vague rules; auditor agrees
Almost immediately, districts complained that rules for using the new desegregation aid were vague. Administrators don’t have to spend the money to alleviate imbalance among schools or districts, only to stimulate “interracial contacts.” No one was surprised in 2003, when an auditor concluded that confusion was one reason the Department of Education was failing to oversee the spending.

School Districts’ 2005 Plan for State Integration Revenue


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Click on chart to enlarge

a The five districts are Minneapolis, St. Paul, East Metro Integration District, Northwest Suburban Integration School District and West Metro Education Program. (The three integration districts receive their revenue from member districts, not directly from the state.)
b The Miscellaneous category includes expenditures associated with technology, early childhood programs and kindergarten readiness, among other things.

Source: Office of the Legislative Auditor

Since then, every lawmaker who has attempted to unsnarl the tangle of contradictions has been stymied. Policymakers no longer all agree that Minnesota should require schools to integrate, much less how.

Sensing there was nothing approaching consensus within her own caucus, much less the Legislature as a whole, the senator who led last year’s effort quickly withdrew her own bill. In an era of drastic budget cuts, pushing ahead without political agreement would only endanger existing funding.

“The temptation whenever money’s not being used the way it’s supposed to be is to say, ‘Let’s pull the money,’ ” says Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, a Minneapolis DFLer. “If we took away the funding from those districts right now, we would have a huge problem.”

A quarter-century ago, virtually all of Minnesota’s segregated schools were in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. Because federal courts had ordered those cities to balance schools’ racial composition, thousands of students were bused out of their neighborhoods. The Legislature passed laws in 1984 and 1987 to help pay for this, but urban districts still struggled to keep up.

Integration bus rides unpopular with nearly everyone
Virtually everybody hated the buses. They were expensive. Long rides to strange neighborhoods were hard on kids — and their families. It was often impossible for parents who lived and worked far away from a child’s school to be involved.

Even as diversifying schools within a single district was proving tough, it was becoming clear that a larger struggle would be integrating schools across district lines. While a majority of central-city students were minorities, neighboring suburbs tended to be majority white. The gap only widened after Minnesota became the first state in the country to allow open enrollment in 1991.

By the early 1990s, education policymakers had begun casting about for new ways to combat segregation. Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of school choice, several metro-area districts joined forces to create three “integration districts” that would try to attract diverse students to magnets featuring exciting programming. In 1994, the legislature approved funding for construction of the first of 14 such schools.

Like other statewide initiatives meant to entice districts to desegregate voluntarily, the experiment was expensive. And unlike Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, suburban districts had no court-ordered funding to meet the extra expense. In 1997, the Legislature appropriated money to offset these costs.

Now, funds go automatically to districts required by the state to have integration plans. This includes districts that have one or more “racially identifiable schools,” where the percentage of minorities is 20 points higher than the district as a whole for the same grades. Plans also are required of districts where the minority population exceeds that of any adjoining district by 20 percent. (These percentages are recalculated every year, and the Department of Education is supposed to report changes to the Legislature.) Because these “racially isolated” districts are expected to cooperate with neighboring districts to integrate, both are eligible for aid.

Majority-white districts without racially isolated neighbors may apply for funds to pay for “voluntary integration” efforts. Among others, Stillwater, Eden Prairie, Inver Grove Heights, Mahtomedi and White Bear Lake received “voluntary integration revenue” in 2005, the most recent year’s figures available.

The amount of money districts get is based on total enrollment. Minneapolis gets $480 per student, as well as legislative authority to levy an extra $35 per pupil. St. Paul gets $445, and Duluth receives $206. Seventy-six other districts get $92 to $129 per pupil, depending on their makeup.

Some 56 percent of the funds finance interdistrict magnet schools and transportation to them. Another 12 percent is spent “addressing the achievement gap,” and 10 percent on administration. Less than 5 percent is spent on diversifying staff. The rest is spent on miscellaneous programs that bring kids of different races together.

Integration Revenue Funding Rates per Student

Note: Funding rates are per “adjusted pupil unit,” as defined in state law. A district’s total integration revenue is equal to its funding rate multiplied by its total adjusted pupil units.
a The funding rate for Minneapolis includes a $35 special levy.

Source: Minnesota Statutes 2004: 124D. 86, subd. 3

Before the audit, the state Department of Education took the position that it could not tell districts how to spend the money but only approve or reject proposals. Officials have since issued guidelines, but proposals still don’t always spell out what will happen at the classroom level.

Osseo, which is racially isolated and has racially identifiable schools, submitted a four-page outline of its plans for 2009-2011, for example. Its goals include making sure staff are culturally competent and that materials are culturally sensitive and available in different languages, and offering “programs in racially identified schools to support academic, social and emotional learning across all student groups.”

When a proposal is turned down, department staff members work with administrators to come up with an acceptable alternative, says education department Assistant Commissioner Morgan Brown.

In the wake of the audit, the department has stepped up enforcement of the rule and oversight of district spending. There are, however, still no criteria for evaluating success.

Targeted integration spending a popular target
Conservative policymakers have long complained that targeted funding can provide disincentives to schools to fix problems — something Minnesota’s auditor found to be true in the case of integration funding. “The funding formula provides disincentives for districts to achieve racial balance among their schools,” the report concluded. “If districts successfully integrate, they will no longer receive integration revenue. This disincentive is most striking for districts that are eligible for the program as a result of having a racially identifiable school.”

Equally disturbing, the auditor concluded that the spending had no effect on segregation: “Of the 22 racially identifiable schools that were first identified in 2000 and still existed in 2005, all but four had a higher concentration of [minority] students in 2005 than in 2000,” the report noted. As Twin Cities suburbs became more diverse, white kids became more likely to go to school with children of color. But the minorities left in urban schools were increasingly segregated.

“With the exception of the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts, [minority] enrollment increased more in the racially isolated districts than in their adjoining districts. As a result, differences in the percentage of protected students between racially isolated and adjoining districts were greater in 2005 than they were in 2000.”

Indeed, the increased segregation led one community to withdraw from the magnet program that the funds were initially supposed to support. Earlier this year, North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale decided to stop sending its integration revenue to the collaborative that runs the east metro area’s so-called integration magnets.

The district now has three times as many minority students as it did when the magnets were launched in 1997. So many, in fact, that it will still qualify for integration funding because it is now so diverse it is deemed to be “racially isolated” from its outer-ring suburban neighbors.

“They looked at the integration revenue and said, ‘We can keep the money ourselves,’ ” says state Rep. Mindy Grieling, the Roseville DFLer tracking the issue in the Minnesota House. “They’re so strapped for money.”

Grieling is ready to try to overhaul the program during next year’s legislative session. Among other changes, she wants to fix the method used to parcel out the aid.

The funding formula provides disproportionate rewards for districts with few minorities, auditors found. Richfield, for example, confronts racial imbalance on several of its borders: It has far fewer minorities than Minneapolis, but many more than Edina and Bloomington.

In 2005, Richfield schools were 52 percent minority. As a result, the district received $611,000 in integration revenue. By contrast, Eden Prairie was 16 percent minority and yet, as a more populous district, was eligible for more than $1 million. West St. Paul, meanwhile, had 30 percent minorities and received $721,000, but the larger Stillwater, just 5 percent minority, got $989,000.

Looked at in terms of dollars per minority student, the imbalance is even more striking: Brooklyn Center received $223 per minority in 2005, while Stillwater got $2,200. Because of other inequities in school finance formulas, that money might pay for perceived “extras” in places like Stillwater, while poorer districts may feel forced to use it to shore up basic services.

Here, too, more clarity is needed. For example, Grieling would prefer that Minneapolis not spend integration aid on instruction on English as a second language. The arrival of large numbers of immigrants is one factor in the overall increase in minority students in Twin Cities schools, but the extra expenses in educating English-language learners is supposed to be paid from a separate pot of state money. Closing the achievement gap is imperative, in her view, but it is not the same as promoting racial balance.

Funding inequality chafes on districts
Minneapolis’ Chief Operations Officer Steve Liss says Minneapolis spends twice as much as it gets on integration-related programming. All of the district’s state integration aid pays for magnets; the programs in question for English-language learners bring diverse populations to otherwise segregated schools.

Liss says the rule has more fundamental problems. Because Minneapolis’ demographics have changed so drastically since lawmakers started arguing about the policy, a school now must be more than 92 percent minority to be racially isolated. “On the other hand, a school can be 80 percent white in a district that’s 25 percent white because of how the rule defines racially isolated,” he explains.

While schools try and fail to integrate, children of color are being left behind, Liss argues. “Given our demographic, our focus is on eliminating the achievement gap,” he says. “Our belief is we can and should have excellent schools for all kids. We believe that schools can achieve, even if they are high poverty and racially identifiable.”

Which is not to say the Legislature should abandon integration as a goal, he says. “We hope that in both caucuses there is a continued commitment to desegregation,” says Liss. “And we think there should be more of a focus on achievement.”

Pitting achievement against integration won’t work, say Grieling and Torres Ray. They cite researchers, including Myron Orfield, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty, who say the achievement gap can’t be closed while schools remain segregated. All children benefit from learning alongside other races: Children of color need exposure to social opportunity, while whites need cross-cultural skills to thrive in the labor market. 

“We need to address the achievement gap through early childhood education, through compensatory aid, special ed revenue, English-language-learner revenue,” says Grieling. “If you did all those things and still did not have an integrated school, students would still be behind, would still be missing out on opportunities and on lifelong learning opportunities.”

Plus, without aid specifically pegged to integration, she adds, “most suburban districts would skip it. It just wouldn’t be worth it.”

Grieling and Torres Ray, her Senate counterpart, plan to take up the topic early next session. Both expect an uphill battle not just about the societal value of integration but the cost. By Grieling’s estimate, fixing the funding formula would cost $30 million a year.

“With the least bit of controversy,” she says, “this will be aced off the table.”

Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics. She can be reached at bhawkins [at] minnpost [dot] com. Cynthia Boyd writes on education, health, social issues and other topics. She can be reached at cboyd [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Monday: Twin Cities-area schools more segregated than ever
Tuesday: Minority populations in suburbs rise — and so do number of segregated schools
Wednesday: The rise of voluntarily segregated schools: new trend, familiar problems
Friday: A better way to integrate schools: by race and class