Every morning, St. Anthony school buses rumble through adjacent northeast Minneapolis, picking up students who have enrolled in the tiny district with a good reputation.

It's not only the 400 students who are leaving Minneapolis. The city also loses about $3.6 million in state aid, and St. Anthony gains almost as much.

A new analysis of the open-enrollment program finds that the shift is leaving both districts more racially unbalanced, with St. Anthony's student body whiter and Minneapolis having a greater share of minorities. Eighty-five percent of the Minneapolis students attending St. Anthony schools are white, as are a similar percentage coming in from Columbia Heights.

"It has the white-flight effect on the city district," said Tom Luce, co-author of the report by the University of Minnesota's Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. As for St. Anthony, "It has an enormous stake in open enrollment."

The institute's analysis argues that open enrollment among school districts in an 11-county expanded metro area is contributing to racial imbalance more often than it is improving racial balance. Using its definition, the number of moves that exacerbated racial imbalance between districts rose from 23 percent in 2000-01 to 36 percent in 2009-10, mostly among whites. Moves that tended to lessen the imbalance rose more slowly, from 16 to 24 percent.

Some Minneapolis parents who send their students to St. Anthony say their switch was about academics, not race. "We felt more comfortable that their education would be more fulfilling for them," said Bryon Tang, who has two students enrolled in St. Anthony. Before that, they attended the half-white, half-minority Waite Park school in Minneapolis.

Added Tina Werni, whose three children followed the same path: "If I wanted lack of diversity, I wouldn't have sent my kids to Waite Park in the first place."

The collective choices have made St. Anthony more dependent on open enrollment for filling its schools and balancing its budget than any other metro district. The tiny, 50-year-old district has a smaller total enrollment than South High, Minneapolis' largest school.

Shifts are complex

In 2009-10, open enrollment bumped up St. Anthony's student rolls by 58 percent, with a net gain of 660 students. Another 114 came through the Choice Is Yours program, which transports low-income students from Minneapolis to suburbs. That trend has ebbed recently as St. Anthony attracts more young families. Minneapolis, Columbia Heights and Mounds View districts supplied about 90 percent of the open-enrollment students.

The institute analysis found a complex network of student shifts under open enrollment. St. Paul and Minneapolis lost more whites than they gained, while St. Paul gained more blacks than it lost, and Minneapolis nearly did so.

Study co-author Myron Orfield, a longtime advocate for metropolitan integration, argued that open enrollment enables white flight, citing the flow to Minnetonka schools. He said that 88 percent of those leaving the rapidly diversifying Hopkins district for Minnetonka were white. So were 76 percent of those switching from Eden Prairie, where attendance boundaries were adjusted to equalize low-income students among grade schools. But Minnetonka Superintendent Dennis Peterson said the criticism is unfair because whites and blacks shifted in almost equal proportion to their enrollment.

In St. Anthony, "We have a quality program. We're a smaller school," said school board Chair Barry Kinsey. The state aid that open-enrollment students bring allows "a deeper and stronger course offering," including 37 advanced-placement courses at the high school.

On the upswing

The Minneapolis-to-St. Anthony flow has been going on since the 1990s. But some Northeast parents like Werni said that their faith in Minneapolis was shaken by budget cuts that cost Waite Park good teachers, a 2005 threat to close the school that eventually was thwarted, and rapid turnover of district superintendents. Council Member Kevin Reich recalled that years ago Northeast Middle School was "horrible," and that Edison High School was known as the "cosmetology school," after it offered that program.

But Northeasters have been attracted back to the elementary and middle schools. Tammy Rusnacko sent two children to Waite Park, after comparing data against St. Anthony's Wilshire Park elementary. "Kids at Waite Park who are within our demographics scored just as high as the kids at Wilshire," she said. Compared to 75 percent white Wilshire, Waite Park "is much more like what our world looks like," she said.

Northeast Middle School's reputation has long since changed. Strong principals and the middle-grades version of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program have helped enrollment shoot up. The school offers three foreign languages to one at St. Anthony Middle School.

Edison High School is still a work in progress, trying to shed its reputation. It has 14 IB courses, and students in business-oriented programs have performed well in state and national competitions. The graduation rate has increased for the past five years, according to Principal Carla Steinbach, who admits "there's lots of work to be done."

But Edison still needs to win back students. Only 29 percent of its students come from Northeast, while twice that many bus from the North Side. Its enrollment of 700 is just half the building's capacity.

"Competition does exist. But I will say that we are seeing more Northeast residents coming," Steinbach said. "I think it's just getting families in the door, seeing what's going on, talking to the teachers."

Connie Korman's son graduated from Edison and her daughter from St. Anthony, a choice dictated in part by their interests and personalities. Both students thrived, but she noticed a difference back in 2006 when her son graduated. "St. Anthony had a lot of higher standards. Edison, you could have higher standards if you wanted them."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib