Fate of Minnesota schools' integration aid hangs in limbo

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2012 - 5:17 PM

Lawmakers' dispute over how to use $108M may jeopardize funds.

A task force's recommendations that could determine how Minnesota schools spend $108 million in integration aid is apparently stalled this session.

The group was granted a long-awaited legislative hearing Monday before the House Education Finance Committee to explain the plan. Yet there was no mention of a legislative fix coming down this session, prompting one legislator to criticize his colleagues for not doing more to implement the plan.

"It would be a shame if nothing comes out of this Legislature," said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who added that he was "dismayed" by the lack of action.

With no legislative action in sight, the future of the state integration program -- which provides aid to roughly 137 schools -- is in jeopardy because it is set to expire at year's end.

The bipartisan task force in November started wrestling over whether the funds should be used to combat segregation, or, as Republicans have argued, use the money for literacy programs and other efforts to narrow the state's achievement gap between white and nonwhite students. The task force ultimately issued recommendations in February that gave a nod to both, calling for creation of a program called Achievement Integration for Minnesota (AIM), responsible for coming up with a plan that prohibits school segregation. Among other things, AIM revenue would be pumped into programs such as full-day kindergarten for low-income families and Advancement Via Individual Determination, a college preparation effort.

Mariani, who also served on the integration task force, introduced legislation this year that would have implemented the group's plan, but it wasn't taken up in committee before the deadline passed for introducing new bills. He then offered it as an amendment to an education omnibus bill, but that measure was rejected.

On Monday, representatives from ISAIAH, a coalition of almost 100 churches that has been pushing legislators to adopt the task force's recommendations, objected that the committee allowed testimony from only the group's co-chairmen.

Many parents, students and community members wanted a chance to speak in favor of the integration program, said Sarah Gleason, the group's education and equity leader.

"They [legislators] asked the task force to do this work," she said. "To do nothing is an abdication of their responsibilities."

Audit critical

Without any changes to the program, schools can continue to spend the money as they have been. And that's been a problem, according to the state auditor's office.

A 2005 legislative audit was extremely critical of the program, determining that several schools were spending the money for such routine purchases as textbooks and equipment.

The task force did not recommend specific changes to the program's funding formula, which currently pays out the most dollars to Minneapolis and St. Paul schools. Since the Integration Revenue Program spread beyond Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth in the late 1990s, school districts have received about $950 million in funding. Before that, about $300 million in aid went to the Twin Cities and Duluth. Under the current formula, Minneapolis gets $480 per pupil, St. Paul gets $445 and Duluth gets $206. But some other districts with high populations of minority groups, such as Columbia Heights or Worthington, get far less.

Funding at issue

Peter Swanson, the task force's co-chairman, voted against the plan in February because he believed it lacked details about how the money could be spent, including which districts receive aid and by which formula.

"In my opinion, that should have been the guts of the proposal," he said.

The task force did recommend that 80 percent of the money be spent on students -- up from the current 60 percent. It also suggested giving the state Department of Education authority to withhold integration funds if a school can't show it's making progress in boosting student achievement.

But some lawmakers said that the task force's recommendations don't go far enough, and leave major problems unsolved. "I don't think it's focused enough on closing the achievement gap," said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton.

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469

  • $108 million

    Integration aid to about 137 schools in the state is at stake. The program that authorizes the assistance expires at the end of next year.

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