At a State Capitol hearing Tuesday, a handpicked task force wrestled with a $93 million question: Are the benefits of school integration worth the cost?

The current state program to help promote integrated classrooms expires in 2013 and the 12-member task force faces a February deadline on whether to continue spending the money to combat segregation, or, as GOP members of the Legislature have argued, use the money for literacy programs and other efforts to narrow the state's achievement gap between white and nonwhite students.

Ending school segregation and closing the achievement gap should be dual goals, state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul and a task force member, argued Tuesday.

"If this turns into a choice between integration and closing the achievement gap, that's a false choice," Mariani said. "There's no winning that."

Republicans and other critics of the integration aid program, however, contend that the funding hasn't produced the intended results. Since the state started doling out integration dollars, the achievement gap has barely budged and the number of segregated schools has increased at least eightfold.

"The dollars have to be solving the problems it's intended to solve," said state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, chairman of the House Education Finance Committee.

If integration funding ends, as Garofalo and other legislators proposed, Minneapolis and St. Paul would take the biggest hits, losing between $18 million and $20 million each per year that has paid for transportation, staff training and magnet schools.

The state's integration districts and magnet schools and the tens of thousands of students who attend them also have a stake in the outcome.

Another lawsuit?

The persistence of segregated schools and unequal education is no reason to walk away from state efforts to encourage integration, a lawyer who won a landmark school integration lawsuit against the state in the late 1990s on behalf of Minneapolis schoolchildren told the task force. The lawyer, Dan Shulman, said he's prepared to go to court again to force better integration of public schools.

"I'm prepared to do it," Shulman said. "I just need clients," he said later.

In addition to the legislative funding debates this year, the issue of school integration has come to a boil in the Twin Cities area, leading to the departure of the school superintendent in Eden Prairie over a school busing decision. School systems, such as Minneapolis, that belong to integration districts are reevaluating their commitment.

Shulman told the task force that redrawn attendance boundaries and the glut of segregated schools with more than 90 percent of students living in poverty have only made things worse in Minneapolis. "The numbers are just so obvious," Shulman said. "It's a problem that should be addressed on a metrowide basis."

Shulman represented the NAACP in the suit that led to the creation of the "Choice is Yours" program that allows Minneapolis students to attend classes in the city's western suburbs.

Sensitive topics

The state task force is just the latest effort to improve or eliminate the state's 14-year-old Integration Revenue program, which was heavily criticized in a 2005 legislative auditor's report. The legislative auditor determined the program has operated without a clear purpose and consistent oversight and found that, since it was established, school segregation in Minnesota has spread instead of shrinking.

Appointed by the Republican-led Legislature and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who works for a DFL governor, the bipartisan panel drew more applicants than any other education board in recent memory, a secretary of state spokeswoman said.

"It's about money ... it's about race, which is also a sensitive topic," said Judy Randall, a program evaluation manager for the Office of the Legislative Auditor. "There are winners and losers, as far as who gets the money. There are all different types of politics going on, not just partisan politics."

Since the Integration Revenue Program spread beyond Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth in the late 1990s, school districts have received roughly $950 million in funding. Before that, roughly $300 million in aid went to the Twin Cities and Duluth.

Even as Minneapolis came under fire Tuesday, school officials said last week that the loss of integration revenue would cripple their efforts to integrate schools and better educate poor and minority students.

"It's a question of how or whether the state of Minnesota will continue to be a partner in stopping segregation," said Jim Grathwol, a Minneapolis public schools lobbyist.

The task force has mostly listened and learned during their first four meetings, but things could turn testy in mid-January, when members make recommendations on how spend the pool of money, Mariani said.

"There are a lot of programs that people think are good," said Peter Swanson, an attorney and state House appointee, who co-chairs the task force. "But should those programs be [paid for] by integration funds? It's difficult to deal with actual numbers."

Everybody has to give

The task force will issue a report to the Legislature only if two-thirds of its members reach agreement, meaning that two people will have to cross the DFL-Republican divide for that to happen.

The dissenting members would have the option to submit a minority report.

The two parties already have staked out territory, said state Rep. Mindy Greiling, the DFL lead on the Education Finance Committee. "It's been pretty acrimonious from the starting block," Greiling said.

Legislators will make the final decision, including whether to accept the task force's report. A move to end the funding could lead to a showdown with Gov. Mark Dayton, a supporter of school integration plans, Mariani said.

"If there's no agreement, it's left in limbo," Greiling said. "I see everybody ... having to give."

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491