Overhaul of Minnesota school integration in limbo

/ 24 February 2012 / jennifer

Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, February 24, 2012 –

A push to overhaul Minnesota’s $108 million school racial integration program has run into a packed legislative agenda – and some murkiness over the next steps.

This month, a task force appointed by the state education commissioner and the Legislature issued reform recommendations: The state should clearly define appropriate uses for its integration dollars, come up with ways to gauge their effectiveness and withhold funding from districts that fail to show results.

Task force members are not sure what happens next.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, said Friday that he expects the Education Department to flesh out a proposal legislators can act on this session. But the department says the ball is in the Legislature’s court.

Meanwhile, Katherine Kersten, one of two dissenting voices on the 12-member task force, presented a report critical of the state’s integration philosophy Thursday in front of the Senate Education Committee.

Some members of the task force questioned why their group hasn’t landed that kind of legislative face time.

“You have something that’s so rare in this day and age – a bipartisan recommendation with more than a supermajority,” said committee co-chairman Scott Thomas, an equity coordinator in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district. “The response has been absolute silence.”

Minnesota’s long-standing integration program became a lightning rod for legislative criticism last year. Lawmakers echoed a 2005 legislative audit that found a lack of clearly defined goals and oversight of district integration spending. The Legislature called for a wholesale rethinking of the program. If that doesn’t happen by the end of next year’s legislative session, the program will go away, and its funding will flow into the state’s general fund.

At the heart of the debate is a fundamental question: Is racial integration a worthy goal in itself? Or is the state better off investing in measures more directly aimed at closing the achievement gap between minority students and their peers, one of the country’s widest?

In its report, the Integration Revenue Replacement Task Force sought to strike a balance. Racial and economic integration is a legitimate goal, but districts also have to show student achievement gains for the dollars they steer toward it. The report lists appropriate uses for the funding, such as full-day kindergarten for low-income families and college preparation programs for traditionally underrepresented students.

The task force submitted its report to Commissioner Brenda Cassellius on Feb. 7, who in turn forwarded it to the Legislature by a Feb. 15 deadline.

Peter Swanson, co-chairman of the task force, also dissented from the recommendations. Still, he said he hopes they get a legislative airing this session. Though they don’t go far enough in fleshing out accountability measures, he said, they’re a step in the right direction.

“I think, realistically, this funding will not go away 100 percent,” he said. “We have to better control it.”

Garofalo said it’s up to the Education Department to craft a reform proposal based on the recommendations, and he expects to see such a proposal as soon as next week.

“There are a lot of empty boxes that need to be filled in,” he said of the task force report. “The devil will be in the details.”

But Charlene Briner, a department spokeswoman, said it’s up to the Legislature to act.

“The governor and the commissioner have been very consistent in their belief that there’s a value to integrated schools, and the state has a role to play,” Briner said.

Kersten, a fellow with the Center for the American Experiment, said she is setting out to challenge that position. Her 144-page report, titled “Our Immense Achievement Gap,” argues that integrating schools does not help raise achievement. Instead, the state should focus its efforts and money on classroom literacy interventions and other strategies.

Kersten’s report also cautions that by enshrining integration as a state goal, Minnesota is opening itself up to lawsuits that could force it to mandate race-based busing or additional education spending.

“I would like to see a mental shift away from this knee-jerk idea that racial balance is the way to go,” she said, adding, “If the Legislature does nothing, the integration program goes away, and I think that might be the best outcome.”

Kersten added that her Center for the American Experiment report, a year in the making, is completely independent of her service on the task force.

Senate Education Committee Chair Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, did not return calls Friday seeking comment on the two reports.

Myron Orfield, a fellow task force member, said Kersten’s views set her apart on the task force. “Everyone but her felt there were benefits to integration,” he said.

Kersten’s report criticizes the work of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota, of which Orfield is executive director.

Thomas, the committee co-chair, said he was disappointed that Kersten landed face time with legislators to talk about integration before the task force, charged by the Legislature to study the issue.

“We’re waiting for a hearing,” he said. “It’s pretty maddening we spent all this time at their direction and request, and we’ve had no response.”

Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at twitter.com/MilaPiPress.