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New study finds Minnesota has a lower educational ‘wealth gap’ than most states

An education think tank identified 2,817 so-called “private public schools,” whose doors, it says, are “effectively closed to poor children.” Only 37 of them are in Minnesota.

Throughout the United States, 1.7 million children attend public schools that, in terms of wealth, are as exclusive — or more so — than their private brethren, according to a new national report.

Researchers at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, identified 2,817 “private public schools,” whose doors they describe as “effectively closed to poor children.”

They cited Minnesota, however, as an example of a state with a lower educational “wealth gap” and speculated that the state’s policy of school choice was the likely reason.

Their list (PDF) includes 37 such “private public schools” in the Twin Cities metro area that served nearly 17,000 students during the 2007-2008 school year. Minnesota serves fewer low-income students overall than other states, the researchers noted, but at 2 percent, the proportion of Twin Cities students who attend the exclusive schools is about half the national rate.

Such private public schools “do not happen by accident,” said the authors. “In a country where more than 40 percent of K-12 pupils are poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch from the federal government, it is not exactly random when a school serves few or none of those kids. That is not to say that these schools declare an unwillingness to educate needy girls and boys. But their demographics generally are products of public policies and community decisions.”

At the elementary level, the researchers defined a private public school as one where fewer than 5 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. At the middle and high schools on the list, fewer than 3 percent of students are poor.
“These institutions — generally found in wealthy urban enclaves or well-heeled suburbs —educate many of the children of America’s elite while proudly waving the ‘public school’ flag,” wrote researchers Michael Petrilli and Janie Scull. “But they hardly embody the ‘common school’ ideal. In fact, by exclusively serving well-off children, they are arguably more private — certainly more exclusive — than many elite private schools, which, after all, generally offer at least some scholarships to low-income students.”

A Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, the Fordham Institute has advocated for charter schools, vouchers and tax credits for private school families. People who oppose vouchers for poor children rarely object to public funding of potentially more exclusive private public schools, its researchers noted.

Class segregation rates are highest on the East Coast, according to the report. In New Jersey, which has the highest rate, nearly one in five schools has virtually no poor students; almost one-fourth of that state’s white and Asian-American students attend one.

Most of the schools surveyed in the report are overwhelmingly white. Nationwide, 17 percent of public school students are African-American, but just 3 percent of the students in the so-called private public schools are. Some 12 percent of students are in these schools are Latino, about half the rate in public schools as a whole.

Two Minneapolis schools made the list. Lake Harriet Lower elementary school is one. The other, the charter Loveworks Academy for the Arts, was likely listed in error. Its student body is 99 percent African American and overwhelmingly impoverished, according to local education policy researchers.

The Conservatory of Performing Arts, a specialized high school that draws students from nearly 80 communities in the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin, was the only St. Paul school listed.

Most of the rest of Minnesota’s metro private public schools are located in second-tier suburbs.

“This paper obviously begs some important questions,” the authors asked. “For example, why does Minnesota in general, and the Minneapolis metro area in specific, have so few ‘private public schools’ Do Minnesota’s public school choice programs — especially its ‘open enrollment’ law that allows kids to cross district boundaries — make it easier for low-income children to access affluent schools?”
According to Baris Gumus-Dawes, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Race and Poverty, however, open enrollment isn’t the main reason.

 A bigger factor, she said, is likely Minnesota’s Fiscal Disparities Act of 1971, a law that requires wealthy communities to share tax revenue with their poorer neighbors.

Traditionally, schools’ economic fates are tied to their local communities. Communities with more large, high-value homes raise more property taxes, creating disincentives to create or allow low-income housing, she explained. Without a revenue-sharing system like Minnesota’s, the financial disparities between spending on schools in wealthy enclaves and in poorer municipalities is much greater.

“School choice tends to increase fragmentation within schools,” said Gumus-Dawes. “With more choice, you’re more likely to have this kind of stratification.”

Because income and race are tightly correlated in Minnesota, it’s not surprising that the Minnesota schools identified in the report are overwhelmingly white, she added.

Many education policymakers believe that integrating schools by class is as important as creating racial balance. In 2006, University of Wisconsin economist Douglas N. Harris determined that schools having a student body that is at least half middle class perform much better than schools where a majority of students are poor. Harris’ analysis showed that if more than half of students were low-income, only 1.1 percent of schools performed at a “high level” as measured by national achievement standards. But if the schools were majority middle-class, 24.2 percent of schools reached that performance level.

Other researchers have found that wealthy families — usually white — are less likely to leave communities where schools are integrated by class.

The Fordham report did not delve deeply into the policy decisions underlying the varying rates of economic segregation found in its report.

But Gumus-Dawes was quick to note that besides Minnesota, the other communities where researchers found relatively low numbers of exclusive public schools all have public policies that attempt to counterbalance disparities: In Seattle and Portland, for example, good land-use planning encourages mixed-income housing; around Baltimore, zoning laws require suburbs to create affordable housing; and St. Louis has had a formal school desegregation program.

Beth Hawkins writes about education and other topics.