Growing Minneapolis: Tackle racial inequality

  • Updated: September 22, 2013 - 3:02 AM

For several years now, a handful of Minneapolis charter schools have demonstrated that the persistent achievement gap need not be permanent.

On the North Side, Harvest Prep, Best and Seed Academies recently celebrated completely closing the disparity between white students and students of color in their state test results. In south Minneapolis, Hiawatha Academies has also become a notable “beat the odds’’ school for improving learning for lower-income students.

Both programs feature strong curriculums, high expectations and vigorous levels of family engagement, despite the challenges many of those families face.

These schools are among the examples of what can and must be done to develop youth potential and help Minneapolis grow. Assuring a strong economic future for the city means attracting businesses and highly skilled workers. But it also means developing the skills of the neediest residents who come seeking opportunities — and of the youths and adults who are already here.

Minneapolis has much work to do on this score. By whatever name — achievement gaps, opportunity disparities or access deficiencies — there are too many inequalities. Minnesota and its largest city share the dubious distinction of having some of the largest gaps in the nation on measures of education, income, health and housing.

Wide and lasting standard-of-life disparities between races and haves and have-nots have consequences. One need look no further than bankrupt Detroit to see what can happen when poverty concentrates and deepens.

In Minneapolis, poverty rates are three times as high for many minority groups as for whites. Yet those groups are the ones that are growing and will populate the future workforce.

Closing the disparities is not just about doing the right thing. It is about the future economic viability of the city and region.

Back in 2005, the “Mind the Gap’’ report, published by the Brookings Institution with contributions from the Itasca Project (a Minnesota business group) and the McKnight and St. Paul Foundations documented the problem and pointed toward solutions. The report noted:

“[T]he fates of large cities and their metropolitan areas are intertwined — they grow together or they decline together. … When central city incomes grow, then suburban incomes, home values and populations also increase. Reductions in central city poverty rates help fuel income growth in the whole region. Reducing special disparities also creates efficiencies that lower infrastructure costs.’’

That now eight-year-old study raised awareness and helped prompt some action, but not nearly enough. The gap in employment rates between America’s highest- and lowest-income families has stretched to its widest levels since officials began tracking the data a decade ago, according to an analysis of government data conducted for the Associated Press.

Rates of unemployment for the lowest-income families — earning less than $20,000 — have topped 21 percent, nearly matching the overall rate during the Great Depression.

In in his final State of the City address earlier this year, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak wisely focused attention on the disparities problem, calling the achievement gap an issue of social justice and civil rights that is “central to our economic future.’’

“This is a crisis,’’ Rybak said, “and we have to act like it.’’

Though the city has deep disparities across several standard-of-living measures, education has received the most attention.

A recent poll of Minneapolis residents, conducted for the Star Tribune, found that education is a top priority for voters. That indicates how much Minneapolis citizens care about their schools and how eager they are for student performance to improve.

It is also telling that education has emerged as a major issue in the city’s upcoming mayoral election — even though the mayor and other city officials have no direct jurisdiction over city schools.

But even without direct power over schools, city officials can influence and supplement efforts to address inequalities. Here are some priorities the new mayor and City Council should pursue:

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