State financial aid for school integration survived the 2011 legislative session despite strong efforts to kill it. During the current 2011-13 budget cycle, $109 million in integration aid will continue to flow to about 125 Minnesota school districts.
However, legislation calls for the funding to end or be reallocated by 2014. In the meantime, lawmakers agreed to have the state education commissioner convene a 12-member integration aid working group to make recommendations about how those funds should be spent.
Any reallocation should include a continued commitment to desegregation. In an increasingly multiculutural, multiracial world, it remains important for students to interact with classmates from different backgrounds.
That doesn't mean the state can't improve how integration dollars are used. It's critical to ensure that districts use the funds properly and that they're getting results. The Education Department should be clearer about how the funds may be spent.
In the coming weeks, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius will appoint six members to the group, and Senate and House leadership will appoint the other six. Once they complete their work, the Legislature must follow their recommendations.
Since 1999, Minnesota has spent more than $700 million on integration -- not including local tax dollars that districts have also levied for that purpose. The funds have been used in a variety of efforts -- from purchasing books that reflect diversity to busing to cross-district programming.
That points to a problem with the current program: Some districts have spent the money on worthwhile efforts such as reading programs or books, but those initiatives have questionable links to desegregation. Though some participating schools can point to specific gains, others cannot.
A 2005 Minnesota legislative auditor's report raised concerns about how the money was spent and found that racial disparities were growing, not decreasing, in some of the districts that received funding. The auditor concluded that state rules were unclear and included no criteria for evaluating district integration plans.
To address those concerns, a recent Education Department review recommended developing an assessment plan with measurable goals and funds targeted specifically at school systems with the most needs. Those districts would have to show progress toward clear integration goals to maintain state funding.
That suggestion could be included in any plan that the integration aid task force develops. It's understandable that in tight budget times, districts have raised concerns about whether funds spent on integration should instead be used to help struggling students.
The task force could consider dedicating the funding for two purposes -- closing the achievement gap and integration -- then develop clearer rules about how to allocate funds in both categories.
The integration aid working group must report to the Legislature by Feb. 15, 2012. Let's hope for a plan that maintains a level of state commitment to desegregation while also addressing the persistent achievement gap.