Eighth-grader Choua Thao starts each school day with a 45-minute bus ride from her north Minneapolis home to Wayzata East Middle School. It's a small price to pay for what she said she gets in return: a safer, more challenging suburban school.

"Coming here is helping me get to know my future," said the 14-year-old, who moved from Thailand six years ago and now hopes to go to college.

Her long ride is one of many initiatives that are coming under increased scrutiny in Minnesota as parents and politicians across the metro area re- fuel a decades-old debate over school integration.

In Eden Prairie this year, parents retained a lawyer to fight the school district's plans to move students around to integrate schools. In recent years, Mahtomedi and North St. Paul schools have pulled out of the east-metro integration consortium while Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center threatened to withdraw in the west metro. The Choice Is Yours program that pays for Choua Thao's ride to Wayzata is under fire, partly because it cannot show proof that participating students do better academically.

Last week, legislators in the House and Senate reached a preliminary deal on a K-12 education bill that would repeal the state's desegregation rule and cut funding that flows from it, with Republican leaders arguing that state aid of $64 million this year alone has yielded too few solid results.

The plan has drawn heated protest, but even critics agree that reforms to school integration aid are overdue.

The debate resurges as suburban diversity swells. In the last decade, minority residents made up 80 percent of Minnesota's growth. The number of schools tagged by the state as racially distinct from surrounding schools rose from 32 to 51.

It has prompted more parents and politicians to question how schools should respond. Should kids be rearranged for racial balance?

Many insist that school integration is still critical. "We should not turn our backs on 60 years of trying to get this right," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said.

But lawmakers such as Gen Olson are bothered that students would have to spend half an hour or more on buses every morning "in order to get a, quote, 'better education.'" Families should have choices about where their kids go to school, but "why can't they be getting that education where they are, in their home school?" said Olson, Republican chairwoman of the Senate education committee.

Opening doors

Integrated schools have a better shot at closing the achievement gap between white students and many minority groups, some national experts say.

The high-poverty schools where many minority students are clustered tend to have less-experienced teachers, less-challenging classes and less access to social networks that help students at wealthy schools get jobs, said Myron Orfield, executive director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty. Integration efforts that offer free busing to magnet schools or other districts open doors for poor families who can't afford to drive to better schools.

He points to research that shows students of color who attend integrated schools have higher test scores. They're also more likely to graduate and have higher incomes than peers at segregated schools, he said.

But George Mason University Prof. David Armor points to a study showing that integrated schools post modest test score gains for poor kids but losses for affluent kids. He said that there's no evidence of a clear and consistent relationship between desegregation and academic success.

Court-ordered busing plans of the 1970s have largely dissolved in favor of voluntary integration plans. But Boston University Prof. Christine Rossell said that redrawing attendance lines for demographics, as Eden Prairie plans, is still "forced busing."

Mandatory plans cause white, well-educated families to flee schools, known as "bright flight" or "white flight," she said. "The fact of the matter is that upper-middle-class people and middle-class people don't want to send their kids to school with poor kids."

'You sure it's in Eden Prairie?'

In Eden Prairie, some parents have moved their kids to neighboring Minnetonka since the district approved boundary changes last winter, in part to better integrate poor students.

Poverty and race have a high correlation in the Twin Cities, and Eden Prairie isn't the only community seeing big changes. Since 2003, the percentage of students of color at public schools rose from 21 to 37 percent in inner-ring Twin Cities suburbs and from 13 to 22 percent in the outer ring.

Most of Eden Prairie's elementary schools have 23 percent low-income students or less -- except Forest Hills, where it's more than 40 percent. In one first-grade class, four of 22 students are white; the rest represent countries from Thailand to Mexico.

"This is a typical classroom," said Principal Connie Hytjan said. "When people find out the demographic of the school I work at they say, 'You sure it's in Eden Prairie?'"

Boundary debates aren't always about race, though. Many Eden Prairie parents told leaders they oppose the loss of neighborhood schools -- a concern echoed by parents in Burnsville, among other suburbs that have explored ways to smooth school imbalances in race or income.

Ripe for reform

The state has handed out more than $700 million in integration aid since 1999 -- not counting local tax dollars that districts have also levied under the program. The money goes to districts that have racial disparities between their schools or with neighboring districts, or to districts that volunteer to join one of several regional integration efforts.

Some of the aid funds magnet schools. It also pays for field trips, academic support programs and other efforts that don't necessarily lead students to switch schools, but aim to increase achievement or interracial contact.

Lawmakers still don't agree whether the primary goal of the program should be physically integrating schools, closing the racial achievement gap, promoting interaction between white and minority children or a mix of them all. As far back as 2005, the legislative auditor has said that integration aid lacks a clear goal, and that neither the state nor schools adequately assess its results.

Some legislators argue that integration aid has yielded few clear results. "Just pouring money into doing the same thing and expecting different results -- that's the definition of insanity," Olson said.

The K-12 education bill heading toward a vote in the Legislature would repeal the state's desegregation rule and cut aid stemming from it. Instead, new money would go toward efforts to raise achievement and reward districts that show success teaching kids to read.

Critics argue that integration aid should be fixed, not ditched, and that integrating schools is still a good goal. West Metro Education Program Superintendent Dan Jett points to test scores that show students perform above the state average at the FAIR School, a magnet school that the integration collaborative oversees.

Other evidence casts doubt on efforts such as the Choice Is Yours, which is funded mostly by sources other than the integration aid the Legislature would cut. In a draft report to the state this year, an independent evaluator raised concerns about high student turnover and limited tracking of student data. There's a "lack of strong evidence" that the program leads to academic change, the report said.

A group of stakeholders assembled by Cassellius plans to propose changes to integration aid this spring. Group members say more clarity is needed about how the money should be used.

Orfield believes that funding should reward districts that make progress toward physically integrating students. He and others also argue that schools can't integrate communities on their own. Affordable housing should be spread more evenly throughout the metro area, he said.

As Cassellius put it, "This is not just an issue for schools."

kelly.smith@startribune.com • 612-673-4141 slemagie@startribune.com • 952-882-9016