Task force recommends greater oversight, guidance for school integration efforts

How best to integrate Minnesota schools has confounded many, from the school officials themselves, on up to the state legislature and the governor.

A 12-person task force appointed by the legislature and the Minnesota Department of Education recommends greater oversight of how schools spend millions of dollars in an effort to close the achievement gap.

Last year Gov. Mark Dayton rejected a plan by GOP lawmakers that ended integration funding, most of which goes to Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. The task force was proposed from that fight.

But at least one key lawmaker doesn't think the task force gave the legislature much to work with.

One challenge for the integration task force was to determine how schools should best use money meant for integration efforts. The state spends $108 million annually on the program.

Task force member Myron Orfield, a law professor and executive director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty, says schools lack guidance on how best to use money intended to reduce the achievement gap between white students and racial minority students.

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"Some districts were using it and not being accountable for it. They were using it to supplement their budgets," Orfield said. "Others said people were using it to hire motivational speakers or to go to conventions, there was no rhyme nor reason."

Orfield said task force members agree schools need to report how they use integration funds, and the school and the state should measure whether those efforts are successful.

However, details of how that specifically happens were left out.

Task force co-chair Peter Swanson said the group should have offered a more solid plan.

"Here is what we're going to measure in terms of progress. Here is what will make a district continue to receive the money. Here is what is going to make a district no longer receive the money," Swanson said. "I don't think we were as detailed with that as we could have been."

Swanson was one of two members who voted against the task force's final report, primarily because he thought it lacked detail.

But he said the group worked well together, despite opposing views on integration and could have done an even better job if it had more than 10 weeks to finish the report.

Despite the quick turn-around time, the report should be useful to lawmakers, task force member and Republican State Sen. Pam Wolf said.

"It was definitely a document that can be used at the very least as a beginning point," Wolf said.

From that, lawmakers could add detailed instructions for how schools could qualify for and use integration dollars, Wolf said.

She said it is also possible lawmakers will ignore the findings as they dive into the issue once again.

Republican State Rep. Sondra Erickson, who chairs the House Education Reform Committee, expressed disappointment with the group's report.

"I would like this task force to go back to the table and actually talk about what can be done differently to turn around the achievement," Erickson said.

She said the task force needs additional specifics on tools and strategies schools can use to narrow the achievement gap.

The task force did provide at least one specific recommendation — how much state money should be spent on integration. The group said the current level, about $108 million annually, should be maintained.

As the amount stays the same, some schools could see more money for integration efforts if they show progress toward closing the achievement gap.