Minnesota state education officials are considering significant changes to a program intended to end racial segregation in schools and for the first time insisting that charter schools do more to diversify their classrooms.

The state Department of Education is overhauling the rules of its integration program after years of debate and criticism by the Legislature. For the first time, the department is requiring that charter schools create integration plans. The department will also change the criteria for which districts are eligible to receive the integration money, which means some districts could see dramatic shifts in aid.

Education officials say the changes will address criticism that the program has not adequately diversified the public schools, which some data show have gotten more starkly divided between white and minority students in recent years.

"There is flexibility for districts to come up with creative ideas on how they will use the funds," Assistant Commissioner Daron Korte said.

So far, the biggest opposition to the changes comes from operators of the state's burgeoning charter school industry, which are luring students away from traditional public schools in increasing numbers.

Charter school officials say their schools were created in order to give parents more choices, and argue the Education Department has no authority to include them in the program. Under the current program, districts must create an integration plan if they have schools with large concentrations of students of color or dramatically more minority students than a neighboring district, typically more than 20 percentage points.

The state doles out about $70 million a year for 134 districts to implement their plans, which included funding magnet programs or special teacher training.

In 2011, the Legislature was ready to scrap the program, saying the state was spending too much money with little results. Ultimately, the Legislature voted to keep the program, but it also allowed districts to use the money to address the achievement gap between white and minority students, a departure from using the funds solely to integrate schools.

"This whole program is confusing," said Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. "Is this about desegregation, is it about integration or about student achievement? What is the ultimate goal?"

The NAACP of St. Paul sent a letter to the Education Department saying the state's desegregation efforts should really be defined as achievement gap plans.

"The efforts have shifted almost entirely … to closing the achievement gap, with only lip service or very small amounts of total funding being focused on meaningful integration initiatives," said the NAACP's Jeffry Martin. He argued St. Paul schools have become more segregated after the district shifted enrollment to focus on community schools.

Korte said the changes by the Legislature to add academic achievement does not allow the department to tell districts to use the funds to address racial imbalances.

"Certainly there is value to integrated schools, but we can't force districts to have that be exclusively part of their plan," he said.

The department's proposed changes will require charter schools with concentrations of students of color to come up with an integration plan. Piccolo questions the department's authority to include them in the program because the state law limits the type of funding that charters can receive, and said the Legislature has never said charter schools can receive integration aid.

Piccolo and other charter school officials worry that charter schools that primarily serve students of color, particularly those who have struggled in public schools, will be forced to change their focus and their enrollment practices. Korte says that is not the department's intent.

"If charters are going to explore how they can increase those cross-demographic contacts, then that's great," Korte said. "It doesn't necessarily need to be changing their demographics."

The plans could include ideas for after-school programs that bring a diverse group together. The department will continue to review and approve integration plans, and Korte says there are no prescriptive rules for what those programs will look like. The department is finalizing its proposed changes and will present them to an administrative law judge at the end of the summer. If approved, the changes will go into effect next school year.

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028