Minnesota integration program overhaul on hold

/ 21 April 2012 / jennifer

Megan Boldt, Pioneer Press, April 21, 2012 –

An overhaul of Minnesota’s $108 million school-integration program will not happen this legislative session, leaving supporters worried that the program won’t just be left in limbo but will disappear.

State lawmakers formed a task force to retool the funding, set to end in 2014. The report was delivered in February as asked, but it didn’t get its first vetting until last week, as the session nears its end. One lead Republican on education said the debate would continue into next year because there are still concerns about how program funds would be distributed and how the money would be spent.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said it’s unfortunate that lawmakers sat by for years and did nothing to reform the program, which has been criticized since 2005 for its lack of defined goals and oversight. She added that the Legislature has had the report for two months but did nothing with it until recently.

“It’s very sad that these very good schools and good programs are put into limbo yet again until after the November election,” said Greiling, who is not running for re-election. “If the Republicans are in control again, I think you can kiss integration revenue goodbye.”

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said his biggest concern about the integration program is that more than half of Minnesota’s 364 school districts don’t get any of the money and the task force didn’t do anything to remedy that.

“If the goal is to help poor kids, it should help poor kids across the state,” he said. “Anything would be better than the current system we have. But times are tough. And we don’t have $100 million to waste on programs that don’t work.”

Garofalo said no action this year doesn’t mean the issue is dead.

“It’s more important to get this right than to hurry up and do this,” he told audience members at a House Education Finance hearing Monday, April 16. “This conversation does not end today. It will continue this session and into next.”

Last session, lawmakers passed legislation that would phase out integration funding in its current form in 2013 and created a task force to find ways to redirect the money.

The group recommends still having racial and economic integration as a priority but also requiring schools to show improvements in student achievement for the money they receive. It also specified appropriate uses for the funding, such as full-day kindergarten for low-income families and college-preparation programs for traditionally underrepresented students.

School districts can get integration money if they meet two criteria: At least 15 percent of their student population are minorities, and they’re willing to levy money from local taxpayers to garner the state funds. Suburban districts can get up to $140 per pupil. St. Paul and Minneapolis have fixed maximums of $450 and $480 per pupil, respectively.

So, by design, many schools in Minnesota don’t get the money, said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul.

“Racial segregation doesn’t happen everywhere,” he said.

Mariani offered a bill that would outline how the money would be doled out. It spread out the funding, taking away more than $5 million from St. Paul and Minneapolis and giving more to increasingly diverse suburban districts such as Brooklyn Center and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale.

But the number of districts that received money didn’t change much. And the details on how districts can spend money still seemed fuzzy to some, such as Garofalo. He wants to make sure that money is going to things to help students succeed, such as teachers and tutoring programs instead of cultural liaisons.

The lack of detail is why Peter Swanson, a Golden Valley lawyer and co-chairman of the integration task force, voted against the proposal. It was approved by the group 10-2.

“Outlining how the money could be spent should have been the guts of the problem,” Swanson said. “If we did that, I would assume that we would have had unanimous support.

Mariani is frustrated because he believes the group came up with something that people didn’t think could happen – a compromise proposal that holds schools accountable and demands results. And it’s an issue that’s been dragging on far too long because people get uneasy talking about race, he said, especially when it comes to crafting laws around the hot-button issue. But that’s not a good excuse, Mariani said.

“Just because we’re uncomfortable designing policy around race doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t find a way to do it,” Mariani said. “Sometimes uncomfortable conversations are necessary.”

Eric Celeste, a St. Paul parent who has sent two children to East Metro Integration District magnet schools funded in part with integration money, has anxiously been awaiting legislative action. Celeste said he understands that attacking the achievement gap is a top priority of Minnesota, but he said legislators should be using general fund money to do that instead of taking money from programs such as integration funding.

“I don’t think people understand the depth of the integration efforts. We have the gift of putting our children in an environment where they truly learn to respect everybody. And they learn that everyone, no matter their color, culture or economic background, can be a friend or a colleague,” Celeste said. “It’s not just kids of different races being stuffed in a classroom together.”

Megan Boldt can be reached at 651-228-5495. Follow her at twitter.com/meganboldt.

http://www.twincities.com/politics/ci_20446162/minnesota-integration-program-overhaul-hold