Segregation 60 years later

Segregation in Twin Cities public schools is the result of class as much as race.

Brian Reinken

The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education laid the foundation for racial desegregation of schools across America, declaring separate institutions to be inherently unequal. Sixty years later, a new report has declared New York’s public schools to be the most segregated in America.

Brown v. Board of Education targeted Southern schools, where the degree of racial segregation surpassed that of their Northern counterparts. This policy, however, sidelined segregation in Northern schools until several decades later.

Minneapolis took its first steps toward racial integration in 1967, when the state’s board of education initiated a voluntary transfer program among urban schools. Four years later, the Minnesota government declared Minneapolis’s failure to meet the state’s desegregation goals — including a 30 percent ceiling on minority students — and ordered it to draft a desegregation plan.

Despite a long history of desegregation efforts, the Twin Cities metro area remains stricken with inequality. More than half of minority students in the metro attend “high-poverty” schools in which more than 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The same is true for only 10 percent of the metro’s white students.

Disturbingly, the trend extends to the suburbs. Roughly 30 percent of elementary schools in the metro area have a student body whose majority is nonwhite and poor. Of that 30 percent, 90 percent experience “very high poverty,” in which 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Critics of segregation in the Twin Cities often point to open enrollment as a leading contributor to inequality.

The open-enrollment program allows parents to send their children to whichever school is best suited to their academic needs. In theory, it’s a color-blind program that helps increase competition among schools seeking to maintain and attract the metro’s best students.

In reality, open enrollment is increasing racial segregation in Twin Cities schools. In the 2009-10 school year, more than 35,000 students attended school in a district where they did not live. The majority of these students were Caucasian. Education officials deemed the exodus “white flight.”

Open enrollment’s racial effect may be a result of economic class as well. Low-income families lack the resources necessary to send their children to distant schools. Consequently, open enrollment disproportionally affects urban districts such as Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Cloud, whose student bodies are generally poorer than those of the suburbs.

Unfortunately, the loss of students results in the loss of state aid as well. Due to open enrollment, about 400 Minneapolis students attend school in St. Anthony. With their departure, Minneapolis loses — and St. Anthony gains — approximately $3.6 million in state aid every year.

Eden Prairie’s boundaries

In 2011, officials in the Eden Prairie school district finalized a plan to redraw the boundaries that determine which of the city’s students attend certain schools. Formerly, substantial income inequality troubled Eden Prairie’s education system. The most upsetting aspect of the district was the 33 percent gap in the number of students who used free or reduced-price lunches between two of its elementary schools. Many of these students were members of the city’s populous Somali community who lived around one particular school.

By redrawing school boundaries, Eden Prairie aimed to reduce the income and racial gap. Although the plan eventually passed, it was met with substantial backlash. After a tempestuous period in which detractors called for her resignation, the district’s superintendent ultimately quit.

Nevertheless, Eden Prairie’s desegregation plan was at least somewhat successful. Within a year, the number of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches at Forest Hills Elementary School dropped from 50 to 34 percent, a direct result of the influx of students from other regions of the city.

Compared to Eden Prairie, Minneapolis is larger, its median household income is lower and it’s more racially diverse. Without some adjustment, what worked in one city might not work in another.

Nevertheless, the benefits to desegregation transcend mere political or ethical concerns. Research from the desegregation period following Brown v. Board of Education suggests that black students and other minority students who attend a desegregated school experience higher graduation rates and eventually enjoy a higher average income than their counterparts in segregated schools. They are also less likely to be in prison by the age of 30.

These results manifested, however, only when schools adjusted their resources to increase average per-pupil spending.

The open-enrollment program, despite its good intentions, is contributing to segregation in Twin Cities public schools and draining resources from districts that most need them. Perhaps it is time to re-examine the current approach to open enrollment and consider something more like Eden Prairie’s desegregation policy. However, the state’s metro areas should adjust the approach to meet the realities of a larger and more urban environment.