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Minnesota's yawning racial and ethnic academic achievement gap is among the nation's worst. In nationwide tests of fourth-grade reading, for example, our state's black and Hispanic students lag three years behind their white peers. In recent years, only Washington, D.C., has consistently had a wider gap of this kind.
The story is even worse at higher grades. On 2011 state assessments, 55 percent of Minnesota's white 11th-grade students were proficient in math, while only 16 percent of black students and 22 percent of Hispanic students scored proficient.
The learning gap is not just a problem for north Minneapolis. Today, it's every Minnesotan's problem. Our state's minority population is growing rapidly. In 1995, nonwhite students were just 8 percent of suburban enrollment. Today, they are 37 percent and 22 percent in inner-ring and outer-ring suburban schools, respectively, and 26 percent statewide. Minnesota's continued democratic vitality and economic prosperity depend in large measure on reforms that will help poor, minority students boost their performance in school.
The learning gap is caused by socioeconomic and family risk factors that often leave children deficient in the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in school. To thrive, youngsters who start behind their peers need an intense focus on fundamentals, targeted intervention, and a school climate of discipline and high expectations. Yet today, many education policymakers continue to insist the best way to teach poor, minority students to read and do math is to seat them next to children of a different skin color. For decades, this model was tested in a vast nationwide social-engineering experiment. It failed to boost minority achievement virtually everywhere it was tried.
Minneapolis attorney Dan Shulman believes that lack of racial balance in schools is a primary cause of the learning gap. In December 2011, Shulman, of the Minneapolis firm of Gray Plant Mooty, announced to the Integration Revenue Replacement Advisory Task Force (of which I was a member) that he plans to sue the state to seek a racial balance busing plan that may well encompass the entire Twin Cities metro area. "I'm prepared to do it," he told the Star Tribune. "I just need clients."
What's his goal? A race-based plan like the one a court imposed on schools in Hartford, Conn., in 1996. A lawyer who helped bring the monster lawsuit that produced that outcome also addressed the task force. Shulman assured the task force that this "hero" was his model.
What did Shulman's hero accomplish in Hartford? A two-pronged "desegregation" plan imposed a complex system of racial balance targets on Hartford schools. Its first component is a regional system of magnet schools whose cost ($2 billion) "has pushed state and local education budgets to the brink," according to news reports. These magnets must meet racial quotas to maintain their funding.
Magnet funding "is based on a dizzying hodgepodge of financial arrangements that perplex educators, pit towns against one another, and stir a chorus of protest," according to the Connecticut Mirror. At some magnets, the per-pupil cost exceeds $20,000 a year. Former state education commissioner Mark McQuillan has described the problem succinctly: "The whole system is broken."
The second component is an "Open Choice" program that provides city students with transportation to suburban schools. Besides its great cost, the program has created a host of problems for some students. These include long commutes, and sometimes insuperable barriers to extracurricular participation and parental involvement.
Most Hartford children still attend district schools, which remain as racially isolated as they were 20 years ago. And achievement is still bottom-of-the-barrel: In 2010, only 43 percent of Hartford's K-8 students were proficient in reading, and only 57 percent in math. Meanwhile, all-minority charter schools like Jumoke Academy (pre-K-8) are among the region's highest-performing schools in terms of achievement gains by poor, minority children.
Ironically, the Hartford school district -- the intended beneficiary of the court-ordered plan -- is now strenuously working against the requirements, which increasingly threaten the district's viability. Hartford will likely have to close six or seven schools and lay off hundreds of teachers and staff if it is compelled to send more students to the suburbs. In April 2011, the Hartford schools launched a television, radio and print advertising campaign imploring parents not to send their kids out of the district.
If Minnesota is to make headway against our abysmal racial gap, we must abandon tired social-engineering models that view children through the lens of race. In our own back yard, we have teachers and reformers whose vision and hard work are creating inspiring models of educational success. Let's listen to their voices, instead of to lawyers who want to transform the Twin Cities into another Hartford.
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.