Veto of education bill leaves school integration funding in limbo

The Republican-led Legislature approved an education budget this spring that eliminates the funding for integration efforts altogether. But Gov. Dayton vetoed that bill, leaving the fate of the $100 million a year program uncertain.

Since the Supreme Court ordered schools integrated in the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954, states have looking for ways to do that. Minnesota's history includes a pot of money created in 1997 for integration.

More than one-third of Minnesota districts now get integration funds. The money is supposed to be used to increase opportunities for interaction between students of different races, and to help close the achievement gap. But what does that mean?

Six years ago, the legislative auditor criticized several aspects of the funding, saying there was no clear purpose or oversight. The GOP eliminated integration money in its budget and instead spent some of those funds on literacy programs.

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"We don't have the money to waste on a $100 million program that doesn't help kids."

State senator and former school board member David Hann argues that's a highly-measurable effort that can be de-funded later if found to be ineffective.

"If you're going to spend $100 million a year doing something that's not well-defined and has no discernable effect, or are you going to use $100 million for something that you can show has an effect?" Hann said. "If it doesn't you can stop funding — why wouldn't you do that?"

But state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius believes integration still has an important place in state funding. Before becoming commissioner, Cassellius headed an integration district that drew students from ten metro districts.

"This is not just a metro-wide issue; greater Minnesota and rural Minnesota are becoming more diverse," Cassellius said. "We know we have an achievement gap because we have unique learners and teachers do not yet have all the tools they need to be successful with every single child."

Cassellius also criticizes the integration cut as being a way the GOP unfairly targeted Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth in the budget proposal. Some districts operate magnet schools with the integration money; others provide staff training, especially in districts with ever-increasing diversity.

St. Paul uses its $18 million in integration money for magnet schools, and transporting students to magnets, but it also uses about $1.3 million to operate a Student Placement Center.

The Placement Center is the first place thousands of newly-located students come to enroll. St. Paul families speak more than 120 languages; staff at the center speak Hmong, Somali, Arabic, Karen and Spanish.

Placement Coordinator Mary Guerra said there's no downtime with new arrivals. She said families move to St. Paul every day of the year.

"If they're new to the district — like they moved from Minneapolis or they're just arriving from Ethiopia ‐ then the school will send them here so we can get their records started and we can make those connections with them and help them pick a school," Guerra said.

St. Paul officials acknowledge this use of integration funds doesn't directly raise test scores, but said it's crucial in getting students, especially immigrants, into schools in the first place.

Superintendent Valeria Silva said lawmakers who cut funding for St. Paul aren't fully aware of the challenges.

"Urban settings are different," Silva said. "Until you see the poverty level, you cannot tell me that we have to distribute money equally."

Republican leaders say they can't justify spending without accountability in such tight budget times, and Rep. Pat Garofalo, R- Farmington, is drawing this line in the sand.

"There is no chance the integration funding formula will be funded in the FY 2012-2013 session," Garofalo said. "We don't have the money to waste on a $100 million program that doesn't help kids."

Critics also note the current integration formula gives disproportionately more money to Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, even though other districts have similar percentages of minorities.

A task force recently recommended changes to the funding formula to address that issue, but it's not clear what changes — if any — will survive budget negotiations between the governor and the Legislature.