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"When the Feds Won't Act: School Desegregation, State Courts, and Minnesota's The Choice is Yours Program,"

by Myron Orfield & Baris Gumus-Dawes January/February 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

New strategies are needed to fight school segregation, which continues to undermine equality of opportunity in the U.S. Since the early 1990s, federal courts have been more unwilling to mandate desegregation under the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause. Plaintiffs therefore are increasingly turning to state courts, seeking remedies under state constitutional Equal Protection clauses and/or by invoking the fundamental right to education in state constitutions.

In one seminal Connecticut case—Sheff v. O’Neill—the court recognized that a segregated education was a state constitutional violation and ordered Connecticut to desegregate its schools. In Minnesota, the state settled a somewhat similar claim by initiating a voluntary integration program, The Choice is Yours. This promising program shows the viability of state court desegregation remedies in the face of the waning federal commitment to desegregation. The success of The Choice is Yours also demonstrates that a voluntary school integration program can achieve acceptance in predominantly white communities if adequate financial incentives are put in place.

The Settlement

The Choice is Yours Program was created in 2000 in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the children enrolled in Minneapolis public schools. The plaintiffs argued that a segregated education violates the Minnesota State Constitution’s education and Equal Protection clauses.

The plaintiffs alleged that the State of Minnesota had not taken effective action to desegregate Minneapolis schools and that the state reinforced racial and economic inequality through its school construction policies. A major part of the settlement agreement was creation of The Choice is Yours Program.

The Choice is  Yours Program

The Program has an inter-district student transfer component, which greatly expanded educational opportunities for low-income children in Minneapolis. Under this component, children of Minneapolis residents who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch programs are eligible for priority placement in participating schools in eight suburban school districts. Almost all of the sending Minneapolis schools were predominantly non-white, with high percentages of children receiving free and reduced-cost lunch. Receiving school districts ranged from 41% white to 87% white, with much lower rates of school poverty.

The Program allocated a minimum of 500 priority placement slots per year, starting with the 2001-02 school year, eventually setting aside an estimated 2,000 slots over four years. While the legal settlement that resulted in The Choice is Yours Program expired in June 2005, the Program’s inter-district transfer component continues to operate under the West Metro Education Program’s comprehensive desegregation plan, thanks to ongoing support from the receiving districts.

At the beginning of the 2005-06 school year, approximately 1,680 children were enrolled in The Choice is Yours Program; 1,090 of these students were returning from the previous year. The majority of the participants had previously attended overwhelmingly poor Minneapolis schools. African-American and Asian students participated in the Program at rates higher than their respective shares in the student population. Because the Program was designed to target students by income, and not by race, it was not completely efficient in achieving racial desegregation. Nonetheless, 81% of the participating students were students of color. Geographically, North Minneapolis neighborhoods were the largest contributors to the Program. Not surprisingly, suburban districts immediately adjacent to these neighborhoods received more students under the Program than any other district.

A Promising Public School Choice Model for School Integration

Students who participated in The Choice is Yours Program experienced significant achievement gains. Averaged across all demographics, students from grades 3 through 7 made consistent and significant improvements in reading and mathematics. In comparison with the Program-eligible but non-participating students, The Choice is Yours suburban students made annual gains that were nearly a third higher.

Ideally, one needs to compare the test scores of Program participants with the scores of eligible students who were not accepted into the Program in order to control for the self-selection bias of highly motivated students and parents who seek public choice programs. However, such a comparison is impossible since enrollment capacity limits for The Choice is Yours have not yet been reached and no applicants have yet been rejected.

Instead, the Minnesota Department of Education attempted to correct for this self-selection bias by studying students who began in the Program with a wide range of achievement levels. Students who scored below the 50th percentile initially made gains similar to other Program participants. In both reading and mathematics, low-performing participants scored 19 percentile points higher in mathematics progress than non-participants and 13-22 percentile points higher in reading. These findings show that The Choice is Yours Program holds promise for its academic quality.

The Program has been favorably regarded by parents, students, the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor and even the Bush Administration. One of the nine choice programs nationwide to receive a federal grant while those monies were still available, the Program was considered the best among these programs.

Interviews with parents of the students who participated in the Program revealed great satisfaction with it. Ninety-eight percent of all the parents whose children participated claimed they would recommend the Program to others. During the 2005-06 school year, 70% of the parents reported that they had actually recommended the Program to other parents. Parents rated the schools well on a variety of factors, including setting high standards for achievement, creating community and making students feel welcome. Academic quality and school safety were the main reasons parents enrolled their children in suburban school districts.

Suburban school districts participating in the Program have been receptive to incoming students for two reasons. Many of these districts have been facing declining or stagnating enrollments and as a result have been losing state revenues. The Program fills these empty seats and not only brings needed diversity but also the per-pupil state revenues the suburban districts need to maintain their level of service. Moreover, these school districts are given additional financial incentives for receiving students. Minnesota’s school finance law rewards suburban districts for receiving students who participate in The Choice is Yours Program because these students bring with them what is known as “compensatory revenue” in addition to the base amount of state aid allocated to all students. Compensatory revenue is awarded under a state formula based on the number of low-income children in each district. This means that suburban districts receive more state aid for The Choice is Yours participants than they do for other students. In addition, these districts receive state desegregation transportation aid funds to finance the transport of Program participants.

Strengthening the Program

While The Choice is Yours Pro–gram’s inter-district choice model is a promising approach and has been proven beneficial to the students involved, its limited geographic scope has been counter-productive. Because of neighborhood transition in inner- ring suburbs participating in the Program, increased racial segregation and poverty concentration have become growing issues in some participating schools. Two changes to the Program are necessary for its continuing success in the short run.

Instituting poverty caps on individual schools would limit the number of Program participants any individual school could enroll. This would prevent future concentrations of poverty in individual schools. Ensuring a wider distribution of Program participants across districts would also prevent any school district from becoming racially and economically segregated.

In order to implement its original goal of integrating disadvantaged students into opportunity-rich, well-performing schools in the long run, however, the Program should be significantly expanded to encompass many more school districts. Increasing the number of participating suburban school districts could help distribute poverty enrollments over a larger set of schools and school districts, and ensure that all participating schools remain economically and racially integrated. The Program’s continuing success depends on avoiding future concentrations of poverty and racial segregation in participating schools and school districts.

Myron Orfield is Executive Director of the institute on Race & Poverty at the University of Minnesota and Associate Professor at its Law School.
Baris Gumus-Dawes is a Research Fellow at the Institute on Race & Poverty, University of Minnesota.

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