Commentary

Just over a decade ago, lawmakers ended Minnesota's mandatory policy of moving public school students around to achieve racial integration.

A law that required certain percentages of students in each school was replaced by a mostly voluntary desegregation policy, with state funding included as incentive to encourage the efforts.

But now two proposals are moving through the Legislature that would eliminate much of what's left of state integration aid.

The House version would cut the allocation altogether and redirect some or all of the funds to a reading program.

Its Senate counterpart would strip funding from the state's three largest recipients, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth. Those districts would be allowed to increase local property taxes to replace about 30 percent of the state dollars.

Neither plan should pass.

Though the program needs reform, desegregation and diversity efforts remain morally, ethically and economically important. As recent census results confirm, Minnesota is growing more racially and culturally diverse.

Students should be exposed to peers from different backgrounds in preparation for successful adulthood in an increasingly multicultural state, nation and world. And effective integration programs can help close the state's deplorable achievement gap.

Some who would scrap state integration support argue that the funds haven't been well-spent and could be used more effectively to improve academic achievement. But those two critical goals need not be mutually exclusive.

Educators from several districts with active integration programs told lawmakers at a recent Senate hearing that many of their students are performing better and benefiting in other ways from a more diverse learning environment.

Currently, 125 Minnesota districts receive $64 million in integration aid from the state and another $27 million in locally levied dollars.

The funds are used in varying ways, including supporting magnet schools, covering transportation costs and field trips, purchasing textbooks, and funding teacher training in cultural competency.

The fact that such a wide variety of approaches are being used is one of the problems with the current system.

Though some districts can point to specific positive results, others cannot. In fact, a 2005 Minnesota legislative auditor's report found that racial disparities were growing, not decreasing, in some of the districts that received funding.

The study noted that there was too much spending on efforts with questionable links to integration. The auditor concluded that while local flexibility was important, a state-funded program must also be effective and accountable.

Programs had become so varied, the auditor noted, because state rules were unclear and included no criteria for evaluating district plans.

To that end, a recent state Department of Education review recommended developing an assessment plan with measurable goals and funds targeted specifically to school systems with the most needs.

Those districts would have to show progress toward clear integration goals to maintain state funding.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he supports integration aid, signaling that he would likely veto the proposals now under consideration. But just saying no and maintaining the status quo isn't the way to go.

The law should be changed to clarify its purpose and evaluate effectiveness -- consistent with the auditor's concerns and recommendations from the education department. Lawmakers should mend, not end, state support for integration.

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