Recent test scores showed that students in Minneapolis public schools did as well or better than those who left the district for suburban schools. That assessment is prompting serious questions about the effectiveness of the Choice Is Yours, a program that has given several thousand lower-income kids the chance to transfer. Some are using the test scores to argue that the program isn't working.
Test scores are important, but they're only one measure of school and student success. It's very premature to give up on an effort that promotes racial and economic diversity and has improved academic achievement overall for students.
The Choice program started several years ago in response to an education equity suit against Minneapolis schools. In a settlement with the Minneapolis NAACP, the state, city schools and nine suburban districts agreed to allow more lower-income students to voluntarily change schools. During the past six years, nearly 6,000 students have transferred. Of the 2,000 current participants, about 500 attend schools in neighboring Robbinsdale. Roughly $7 million in state and federal funds are spent on the program, primarily to provide transportation.
It's worth the investment. Creating schools with a mix of family incomes and races is still a valuable goal. Young people who attend diverse schools are better prepared for life after school. And the fact that scores have gone up for students in both settings is good news for Minneapolis school leaders.
More extensive, long-term studies over the past 30 years have consistently shown the benefits of integrated, mixed-income schools -- especially in the achievement, graduation and college enrollment rates of lower-income kids.
Three years ago, the first evaluation of the Choice program showed that students in the suburbs did significantly better than their city peers. However, the last two assessments showed little difference in performance. That change might have occurred because the transfer schools are experiencing higher poverty and resegregation rates, suggesting a need to expand the number of suburban choices.
In addition, more than half of the students who signed up for the Choice Is Yours left the program. More information should be collected about why they opted out and where they landed. As racial and economic resegregation occurs, metro and suburban school leaders should consider more regional approaches such as changing attendance boundaries or consolidating districts. And schools must continue to step up efforts to improve education for kids where they are.
Schools can do only so much to address the larger issues of income, housing and racial disparities. The wider society must also work on setting policies that reduce poverty and discrimination and promote mixed-income neighborhoods. The Choice Is Yours is part of that solution.