MinnPost journalists Beth Hawkins and Cynthia Boyd talk about their investigation of the growing racial segregation of Twin Cities-area schools on TPT's "Almanac." To view their discussion, go here.
How court rulings, laws failed to create racial balance in metro schools
By Beth Hawkins
and Cynthia Boyd
Monday, Nov. 17, 2008
As metro-area schools become more segregated, what's happened to the court rulings and laws in Minnesota that required integrated schools?
For decades, Minnesotans enjoyed racially balanced schools—an effort aided by a relatively strong metropolitan government that insisted suburbs create affordable housing to attract diverse and poor populations and by the actions of courts and the state Legislature. It also helped that the area had a relatively stable population.
But slowly, communities and the schools became more racially diverse.
In 1972, in response to a suit filed by the local chapter of the NAACP, U.S. District Court Judge Earl Larson ruled that Minneapolis Public Schools had "intentionally and deliberately" kept students segregated. No Minneapolis school could be more than 35 percent minority, he ordered.
To comply, Minneapolis began busing 11,000 students outside their neighborhoods to create racial balance in each school. In 1983, Larson released Minneapolis from federal supervision on the condition that the state Department of Children, Families and Learning assume responsibility for enforcing integration guidelines.
At the time, state rules said no school could have more than 15 percent more minority students than the district overall. And no district could have 20 percent more minority students than neighboring districts. When these ratios were exceeded, the state was expected to step in to correct things. It never had to, though: Through the '80s, the number of children of color in Minnesota schools was relatively small and no school met the definition of segregated.
Still, school administrators struggled to maintain the racial balance they created. In the early 1990s, efforts began crumbling. As the Twin Cities' minority population increased, administrators began complaining that the 20-percent rule wasn't just unenforceable, increasingly it was meaningless. Because students of color comprised 75 percent of the total student body in Minneapolis, for example, a school would have to exceed 90 percent minority enrollment to be defined as segregated. Meanwhile, student bodies in many suburbs were less than 10 percent minority but technically were considered integrated.
On top of this, minority families complained about long and tiring bus rides for their children.
Minneapolis asked for and received the state's permission to return to a system of neighborhood schools, rapidly re-segregating big chunks of the district. Integration, Minneapolis officials said, would only happen with suburban involvement.
When the state gave Minneapolis permission to deviate from the guidelines in 1995, state legislators called for a wholesale overhaul to the system. White flight had rendered compliance impossible, everyone recognized. What they couldn't agree on was how to fix the problem. Most DFLers wanted a new integration plan, and wanted it to apply to the entire metro area to create balance among districts. House Republicans, however, wanted to move away from anything resembling quotas.
Among Minnesota lawmakers pressing for an end to numerical formulas was state Rep. Alice Seagren, a Bloomington Republican. "People are tired of counting heads,'' a Star Tribune report quoted her as saying at a 1996 public meeting.
At the time, the state of Minnesota had a board of education, which sided with the DFL. Several years of political wangling ensued, with Capitol Republicans eventually dissolving the board and handing responsibility for drafting a new rule to the commissioner of education.
Unveiled in 1999, the new integration rule replaced the stick with a carrot. Though the rule banned "intentional segregation'' and participation for some was voluntary, there was incentive to climb on board. Districts willing to cooperate with their neighbors to increase "interracial contact" among students would get new state funds, dubbed integration revenue, to offset the cost. (Thursday's installment of this series examines integration funding efforts.)
Some districts, including St. Paul and Minneapolis, complained that the new integration rule was weaker than the one it replaced. "The draft rule appears to be motivated more by a desire to minimize the state's potential legal responsibility for ensuring effective desegregation," the St. Paul School Board lashed out in a letter to the state, "than by a commitment to ensure that children receive the education that they need and deserve."
St. Paul also criticized the state for ignoring segregation that occurred because of discriminatory housing policies or other practices not immediately connected with the schools. "By turning a blind eye to segregation outside the schools, the rule would virtually ensure a continuation of the increasing segregation going on in the metropolitan area for the past 20 years,'' the board wrote.
The new rule distinguished between "intentional segregation" and "racial isolation" that occurred as a result of demographic trends. So long as a school district did not intend to cluster minorities in particular schools, it would not be penalized for increases in segregation.
Minneapolis NAACP officials retorted that the plan was "gobbledy-gook" and the group redoubled its pursuit of two lawsuits it had filed accusing the state of failing to provide adequate educational opportunities for all children, something guaranteed by the Minnesota Constitution.
In 1999, the state, Minneapolis and eight suburban school districts settled the suit with an agreement to use state funds to bus low-income Minneapolis children to suburban schools. In the first five years after the settlement, more than 3,500 students enrolled in the program, known as known as The Choice is Yours.
At the same time, the Department of Education issued the current desegregation rule. Districts with racial imbalances are required to formulate desegregation plans and submit them to the state. Districts that don't meet the state's definition of racially isolated can choose to participate; state "integration revenue" is supposed to underwrite their voluntary efforts to expose students to children of other races.
Because the new rule also reaffirms Minnesota's commitment to open enrollment and parental choice, participating districts are encouraged to create magnet schools and other inter-district programs to attract diverse student bodies. The idea was to create programming that was so attractive that white parents would not use open enrollment to move their children from an integrated school to a mostly white school.
Academic achievement would not be the yardstick for measuring the success of any integration efforts, according to Cindy Lavorato, associate professor in St. Thomas University's School of Education and one of the attorneys who helped draft the rule.
Weak as it was, the rule went virtually unenforced for seven years. The Department of Education did not conduct regular evaluations of districts' integration plans. Neither did the Legislature clarify the department's responsibilities.
By 2005, when a legislative auditor concluded the department wasn't enforcing compliance, segregation in Twin Cities schools had reached unprecedented levels.
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