Study: Open enrollment increasing racial segregation in Twin Cities schools

Eating lunch
Richfield STEM Elementary School students eat lunch Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2012 in the cafeteria. A report from the University of Minnesota says the state's open enrollment policy has made Twin Cities metro area schools, like Richfield, more racially segregated. The majority of students who leave diverse city districts are white, and they leave to attend wealthier, whiter schools.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The state's open enrollment policy is increasing racial segregation in Twin Cities-metro area school districts, according to a report out Friday from the University of Minnesota.

Open enrollment was set up in the 1980s to let families choose the district they want their children to attend. But the study, the first of its kind in Minnesota, said one result of open enrollment is white students leaving racially diverse districts.

The university study does not question the validity of the state's open enrollment policy, but does ask whether it has had some unintended consequences.

• Read the complete report below

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"The idea of open enrollment is racially fair, there's nothing wrong with it. If it's serving as a tool of white flight more than other purposes, then there's a problem," said Myron Orfield, the study's co-author. Orfield is director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School and a former state legislator.

In the 2009-2010 academic years, more than 35,000 students in the Twin Cities metro area chose to go to school in a district other than the one they live in.


• The three large city districts of Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Cloud each lose substantial numbers of students under open enrollment. Loss of white students to nearby districts represents a large majority of each district's net losses.

• Suburban districts losing the most students to open enrollment include a group of diverse inner- and middle-suburban districts which lose substantial numbers of students.

• Districts gaining the most students from open enrollment are predominantly white districts that receive students from more diverse districts.

This is the first time the movement of students through the open enrollment system has been studied, Orfield said. He and his co-author examined at enrollment patterns over a decade in 11 counties that included the Twin Cities-metro area and St. Cloud.

The key finding: white students who choose to open enroll often leave diverse districts to attend schools with a higher percentage of white students.

"Three central city districts — Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Cloud — have the largest losses of students," Orfield said. "And their losses of students are predominately white children to much whiter surrounding districts."

It's not just that white students are leaving those districts in greater numbers. When students open enroll into core city districts from other schools, more often than not they are students of color.


Open enrollment began in Minnesota in 1988.

In theory, it allows parents to pick the district best suited for their child's academic needs.

It is also intended to spur competition between districts — the thought being that districts will do their best to keep students.

"The idea of open enrollment is racially fair, there's nothing wrong with it. If it's serving as a tool of white flight more than other purposes, then there's a problem,"

The study did not look into the motivations behind open enrollment decisions, but education experts who have considered the issue say it is more complex than white students fleeing diverse districts.

It could be an issue of economics, said Melissa Krull, who served as superintendent of the Eden Prairie district for 10 years. Krull agreed to leave in 2011 after implementing a controversial school boundary plan intended to better integrate Eden Prairie schools.

Krull said the study's findings could indicate simply that low-income families cannot line up the daily transportation required to open enroll. Schools are not required to bus in kids who enroll from outside their districts.

"Some families just have the means to move around. And some families don't have the means to move around," Krull said. "Where they live and where their schools are near their home, that's where they're going."

Krull sees both positive and negative points in the state's open enrollment system. It pushes districts to improve their programs to retain and attract students, she said. But she sees problems if, as the university study finds, open enrollment is segregating schools.

Krull sees integrated schools as the best way to narrow the academic achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Minnesota's education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, is not concerned by the open enrollment patterns, per se. But she thinks it is time for the state to look into how open enrollment affects the achievement gap, and what happens to a district when students leave.

"Some districts actually end up closing or consolidating because they're not able to sustain programming and provide a high academic environment for children," she said.

Cassellius does not favor big changes to the state's open enrollment policy.

Neither does Scott Croonquist, the executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School districts.

"I just don't think it's going to be politically viable to put real restrictions or clamp down on open enrollment," Croonquist said.

Instead, Croonquist said lawmakers should fully fund integration efforts in the state, which is also one of the study's recommendations.

Minnesota sends $108 million a year to schools to fund transportation, hire more diverse teaching staff, and provide tutoring in effort to close the achievement gap.

That funding is set to run out this year, and lawmakers will decide this session whether to continue the program.

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