In 2000, the Star Tribune Editorial Board applauded a settlement that created voluntary school integration programs in Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs. Five years after the Minneapolis NAACP had sued the state of Minnesota, the parties to that deal agreed to begin the “Choice is Yours’’ program to allow city students more access to suburban schools.
Yet despite that hard-won settlement, the creation of several special integration districts and hundreds of millions of spending in state funds, today many metro-area schools are more segregated and racially isolated than ever.
Last week, the same local civil rights attorneys who sued in 1995 sued again. The action, filed on behalf of several students and a community group, accuses the state of approving policies that have created separate and unequal schools with disproportionately high numbers of poor and minority children. Students in those schools, the complaint says, vastly underperform academically compared with peers in integrated schools.
Minnesotans should be encouraging another settlement to avoid a lengthy and expensive court battle. But that settlement should include strategies to encourage racial and economic mixing in schools, improve learning where kids are and focus on proven methods to improve achievement.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys are calling for a metro-wide integration plan that could require the state to step in and redraw school boundaries. One legislative leader called that idea a “nonstarter.” But it should at least be discussed. Reconsidering school attendance areas and perhaps having fewer districts should be among the ideas considered to improve racial and economic diversity in metro-area schools.
A recent Star Tribune news analysis found that more than half of St. Paul and Minneapolis elementary schools now have 80 percent or more minority students. In Minneapolis, a district that was fully integrated in the 1980s, two schools have student populations that are almost entirely white, while 19 schools are more than 80 percent minority. In addition, the lawsuit complaint lists more than 30 metro-area suburban schools that enroll 70 percent to 96 percent students of color.
Schools with those demographics often have corresponding rates of poverty. Many also have lower levels of academic achievement. The lawsuit argues that racially isolated schools have not provided students with the adequate education they are promised under Minnesota’s Constitution and that segregated schools discriminate in violation of the state’s Human Rights Act.
Achievement and opportunity gaps are among the most challenging problems facing metro-area public schools. Because research shows that students can do better in more socioeconomically integrated settings, it makes sense to encourage desegregation.
The lawsuit forces the key stakeholders to confront the issue. Minnesota students will graduate into a state, nation and world that are racially, culturally and economically diverse. Hopefully, this round of court involvement in Twin Cities desegregation will help area schools be more reflective of that world and improve student learning.