Changes would allow schools more leeway when using integration money

The Minnesota Department of Education is proposing new rules on which schools are eligible for a state fund created 20 years ago to ease racial segregation.

Two years ago, state lawmakers made changes to the program, allowing districts to use the $100-million-a-year fund for a variety of ways to improve student achievement. The guiding philosophy was that students of color do better academically in schools that are racially balanced.

In the past, schools could use integration money only if they worked with a neighboring district and only on integration efforts. Under the proposed rules, school districts will be able to use money from the fund alone if 20 percent of their students are students of color.

Under the changes, their plans no longer need to focus only on efforts to bring better racial balance to their schools.

That worries some advocates of desegregation and supporters of charter schools.

But lawmakers changed state statute in 2013 to allow districts to use integration money not just for desegregation, but also to tackle the gap in achievement on standardized tests between students of color and their white counterparts, said Daron Korte, an assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Education.

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The lawmakers acted after a state task force in 2012 found little oversight in how districts used that integration money, and no real evidence that it was helping close the achievement gap.

In the last 15 years alone, the state has spent more than $1.2 billion on an effort to integrate schools, mainly in the Twin Cities metro area.

"I don't think there's anybody out there that thinks for the amount of money that's gone into this program over the last 20 years that we've gotten the results that we want to see," Korte said.

Even a name change for the fund signaled a shift away from relying on integration to raise student test scores. It went from "Integration Aid" to "Achievement and Integration Aid."

"The idea is to have schools and districts come up with innovative plans that work for them, that work for their students," Korte said.

Critics are wary of the changes. The state should develop stricter guidelines on how districts can use achievement and integration aid, said Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and a longtime advocate of desegregation in Twin Cities schools.

As executive director of the university's Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, Orfield has conducted research on how housing policies, open enrollment and charter schools have contributed to segregation in Twin Cities schools.

"It has some guidance about how to spend $60 million to $100 million worth of what's called integration aid," Orfield said of the Minnesota Department of Education. "But it's not very clear guidance, it just says 'You ought to spend it for these purposes.'"

The Department of Education maintains the new rules will provide that guidance. Efforts by districts to narrow the achievement gap will need to be approved by the education commissioner to obtain funding.

Charter schools also are concerned about the proposed changes to the state's rules on how the funding is used.

Since their creation more than 20 years ago, charter schools have been exempt from integration efforts in the Minnesota. Under the proposed rules however, charters are brought into the system and required to report their achievement gap plans.

Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, worries that move will require charter schools that have nearly 100 percent enrollment of one race, such as African-American, Somali or Hmong students, to recruit students of other races.

"We're not opposed to the idea that people should be attending schools that have a variety of students and ethnic backgrounds, economic backgrounds and so forth," Piccolo said. "It's the matter of whether or not the state is requiring people to go to particular schools."

Korte, of the state Education Department, said that's not something charter schools should worry about.

"We're not going to require you to change your enrollment practices or all of a sudden ... going to require you to enroll a certain number white kids or students of color," he said. "That's not what the intent of this is."

Korte said charter schools could receive more funding for their achievement gap efforts under the state's new approach to handing out achievement and integration funds, even if integration isn't the entire focus of their plans.

The department is putting the final touches on the proposed rules this summer. They'll be unveiled in the fall and open for public comment.

An administrative law judge must sign off on the rules before they can go into effect.

Correction (July 8, 2015): A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Minnesota schools are no longer required to include integration efforts when using achievement and integration aid. While integration no longer needs to be the sole focus of a school's effort, it's still a required element of a school's plan to use the state funds.