How Minnesota’s Push to Integrate Schools Sparked a War Against Charters Serving Minority Families
EDlection 2016 is The Seventy Four’s ongoing coverage of state-level education news, issues, and leaders in the lead-up to the 2016 elections. (Among our previous stories in this series, coverage from Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. See the latest stories here). Minnesota’s caucuses are scheduled for March 1.
Bill Wilson did not intend to establish a school specifically for East African immigrants. However, shortly after founding Higher Ground Academy in 1999, the word began to spread within Minnesota’s Somali and Oromo communities about the school and its accomplishments.
Although incoming students at Higher Ground may initially be at a disadvantage, this K-12 charter school, situated in a transformed industrial building in a working-class St. Paul neighborhood, sets high standards. Despite coming from impoverished backgrounds, the student body remains disciplined, and their test scores are impressive. In order to graduate, students must gain admission to college, even if they don’t speak English upon enrollment and if Higher Ground is their first encounter with formal education. While academic achievement is decreasing in nearby St. Paul Public Schools, the Higher Ground program has been recognized three times in recent years as one of U.S. News & World Report’s Best High Schools.
As parents spread the word about the school, Wilson soon found himself with a student body comprised mostly of African descent, a long waitlist, and numerous educators visiting to understand the school’s success.
"We set high standards because we understand the challenges these kids face," says Wilson. "I have never gone door to door to recruit students. Our achievements speak for themselves."
However, despite all the accomplishments, Wilson now finds himself defending Higher Ground against what he and other Minnesota charter school leaders perceive as an attack on parental choice.
In November, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the state of Minnesota, accusing it of allowing segregated schools and thereby depriving students of a quality education. According to the lawsuit, the rise of charter schools has made integration impossible.
Simultaneously, state officials have proposed that charters participate in the state’s desegregation program. Currently, independent schools must admit any student who applies, using a lottery system when there are more applicants than available seats. The proposed desegregation rule lacks specific details, but it is clear that charters that maintain color-blind, random lotteries would need to find a way to place their students in integrated environments.
In essence, compliance would undermine their autonomy. Many charter leaders argue that it is precisely this autonomy, which enables flexibility in staffing and allows for longer school days, that is fundamental to their academic success.
"Why should people be denied the freedom to attend the schools they desire? Why take away that choice?" questions Wilson. "There is an agenda to shut down schools like ours. We disprove the myth that students from low-income backgrounds cannot succeed in school."
School choice advocates across the nation should pay close attention to this legal battle in the Midwest. These challenges arise at a time when opponents of charters, particularly teachers’ unions, are intensifying their political opposition by claiming that these schools exacerbate education inequity.
Prominent initiatives like Black Lives Matter and President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper have pushed equity to the forefront of the education agenda. Supporters of different education policies are competing to prove that their philosophy or initiative is the one that will benefit students of color.
Questions of equity lie at the heart of debates surrounding the expansion of charter sectors in Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities. They also underpin efforts to ensure that disadvantaged students have equal access to the best teachers.
Recently, a controversial New York Times article about suspensions within New York City’s Success Academies charter network overshadowed coverage of the Obama Administration’s ongoing efforts to reduce racial disparities in discipline within traditional school districts.
Hillary Clinton further fueled this debate by claiming during a November African American candidate forum that charter schools frequently turn away the most challenging students.
This claim deeply frustrates Wilson, who previously served as Minnesota’s commissioner of human rights and as a member of the St. Paul City Council. His experiences advocating for African American youth in both positions left him disillusioned with traditional schools’ ability to serve students of color.
He established Higher Ground to cater to the exact students that Clinton referred to because he believed that better was possible. Wealthy white families could also enroll their children if they wished, but these children tend to thrive in nearby schools where their culture is the dominant one.
In contrast, the students at Higher Ground, all of whom are black and come from impoverished backgrounds, perform at the same level as the statewide averages. Fifty percent of them are able to read at their grade level, and nearly 60 percent are proficient in math at their grade level.
Wilson argues that labeling the school as segregated is a misinterpretation of the history of racial inequalities in U.S. schools. Segregation refers to the act of preventing a person or group from enrolling in a school, not the situation when families choose a program that preserves and celebrates their children’s cultural heritage.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School and also the head of the Minneapolis NAACP, shares the same view. She disagrees with using civil rights laws to classify these schools as segregated. Levy-Pounds intentionally sends her children to an all-black charter school to ensure that they receive affirmation and that their history is brought forward in the classroom, so that they feel valued as whole individuals.
The focus of the controversy lies on Myron Orfield, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, who has written several reports criticizing charter schools as ineffective and a major obstacle to integration. Orfield, who leads the university’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, advocates for the creation of metro-wide school districts to promote integration.
Myron Orfield’s criticism of school choice began during a time when school demographics were drastically different. In 1991, when the first charter school law was passed, over 90 percent of Minnesota students were white. Today, three-fourths of students in Minneapolis and St. Paul come from diverse backgrounds.
As integration becomes more challenging due to demographic changes, policymakers have shifted their focus towards improving the quality of underprivileged schools. Orfield’s work has become increasingly forceful and ideological, especially after it was revealed that half of the funding for one of his prominent reports came from teachers unions, who utilized it to advocate for policies against charter schools.
In one of his recent reports, Orfield describes the emergence of a "poverty education complex," which he claims is a profitable private education sector with a vested interest in reversing efforts towards desegregation.
Orfield asserts that the phenomenon of "white flight" in the 1990s led to resegregation in neighborhoods and schools in the Twin Cities. This decline in test scores was then used by proponents of "school reform" as evidence of the failure of public education in central city areas. These reformers argued that Minnesotans needed more choices in education, including the ability to select their public school district and the option to choose between traditional public and independent charter schools.
While school leaders like Wilson view their efforts as providing culturally relevant programming, Orfield contends that they are intentionally impeding integration efforts.
Orfield released a study, funded by three teachers unions in Illinois, titled "Charter Schools in Chicago: No Model for Education Reform." In the study, he claimed that traditional district schools in the city outperformed charter schools. This conclusion led to demands for a ban on new charter schools and legislation to restrict their expansion, which the unions were lobbying for.
The Illinois Network of Charter Schools quickly refuted Orfield’s claims, pointing out several errors in his study, such as inflating the graduation rate of district schools from 63 percent to 83 percent and selectively choosing research that supported his arguments.
Even Orfield’s colleagues at the University of Minnesota have raised doubts about the reliability of his research. Another faculty member from the university criticized one of his recent studies as "highly suspicious" and "not worthy of being labeled as ‘university research.’"
Two other scholars from the Twin Cities, one of them an attorney who has represented charter schools, expressed frustration with the errors and inaccuracies in a widely circulated 2009 report by Orfield titled "A Missed Opportunity: Minnesota’s Failed Experiment with Choice-Based Integration." They published a 69-page rebuttal in the same journal, the William Mitchell Law Review, highlighting the study’s omissions of contradictory research conducted by Orfield’s own brother.
A fresh legislation and a new strategy for combat
In 2013, Minnesota legislators passed a comprehensive reform of the program that allocates funds to school districts for voluntary integration efforts, following extensive and contentious discussions about the link between integration and academic achievement. The annual budget of $173 million was now up for debate on whether it would be better utilized towards closing the achievement gap.
With the adoption of the new law, the responsibility of creating the program’s regulations fell upon the state’s Education Department. Orfield, as a member of the task force assigned to draft the initial version, dissented from the recommended guidelines in February 2014. The recommendations emphasized voluntary efforts by schools to expose students to peers from diverse races and cultures.
Orfield, however, advocated for sweeping changes. He demanded the elimination of a provision stating that a school would not be considered segregated if its enrollment was a result of parent or student choice. Additionally, he pushed for the inclusion of clauses to prevent the creation of new schools that could potentially perpetuate segregation. These changes would effectively make it extremely difficult to establish alternative schools as alternatives to underperforming traditional schools.
When the state did not accept these changes, Orfield sought intervention from the city of Brooklyn Center, a financially disadvantaged suburb of Minneapolis, to petition a judge for the desired modifications. Subsequently, the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools alerted its members about the potential consequences of the Brooklyn Center/Orfield Amendment, cautioning against the creation of "super school districts" that would include charter schools. The amendment would enable the state to categorize differences in programs, staff, and facilities as acts of "legal segregation," potentially resulting in student transfers, staff reassignments, and school closures.
Shortly before the scheduled hearing, Brooklyn Center chose to withdraw its petition. They officially attributed this decision to another organization with greater resources and a more compelling case coming forward. However, public records indicate that city officials were surprised by the implications of their petition.
Interestingly, a member of the Brooklyn Center City Council also served on the board of a local charter school. Meeting minutes from Odyssey Academy suggest that she advised school representatives to inform city officials about the detrimental impact of the proposed change as the hearing approached.
Correspondence between city and school officials obtained by the MinnCAN education advocacy group through open-records laws reveal that the city sought Orfield’s opinion on the school’s concerns, and he assured them that the rule change was unlikely to have adverse effects.
The charter community also expressed concerns about the state’s proposed revision of the rule, but for different reasons. Charter leaders argued that the application of the desegregation rule to their schools would circumvent Minnesota law, which deliberately exempts charters from many regulations in exchange for autonomy and accountability. This would set a precedent that undermines the original intent of the charter legislation.
In addition, including charter schools in the desegregation efforts would not necessarily result in the diverse student populations commonly associated with integration. Minnesota previously encouraged schools and districts to voluntarily devise strategies for exposing students to other cultures. Integration funds were allocated to initiatives such as staff diversity training, after-school activities, and ethnic art in certain areas.
However, lawmakers decided to redirect the funding towards initiatives targeting the closure of academic achievement gaps, particularly in St. Paul, when they revised the law two years ago. Integration remains a goal, but not at the expense of academic success.
Orfield now asserts that he will only testify at the upcoming January hearing on the proposed state law if he believes there are not enough advocates for traditional integration. Ironically, he shares the same opposition to the new rule as charter leaders, though for different motivations.
Orfield claims that the current rule abandons the cause and calls for a complete restart. He predicts that the matter will ultimately be resolved through legal channels. Attorney Daniel Schulman, who filed a recent class-action lawsuit, has indicated that its ultimate aim is to dismantle the current school systems in the Twin Cities and replace them with several metropolitan-wide districts that ensure racial balance.
While Orfield acknowledges that his work has supported the lawsuit, he clarifies that he is not formally involved in it.
A decision on the state rule is anticipated in the following weeks, whereas the lawsuit is likely to take years to navigate through the legal system.
"It represents the distinction between democracy and autocracy," Wilson explains. "In a democracy, every individual has an opportunity, has a choice. You have the freedom to choose who you want to vote for. With charter schools, people exercise their choice by selecting where to send their children."
He finds it offensive that both the proposed new rule and the lawsuit are based on the belief that integration is the only solution to bridging the achievement gap. "It implies that the only way a black child can receive an education is alongside white children," Wilson expresses. "And that is deeply concerning."
If the lawsuit proceeds, one of the key questions will be whether schools chosen by parents of color can be considered segregated. This will undoubtedly lead to years of legal challenges with potential nationwide consequences.
One significant aspect of this debate is whether civil libertarians are correct in arguing that offering parents a high-quality alternative in a school that is predominantly attended by one race does not constitute "segregation." They suggest that segregation is the result of denying children opportunities and choices based on their identity.
"At the end of the day, I strongly believe in fostering a sense of community and unity," says law professor Levy-Pounds. "I also believe in recognizing the importance of schools that are specifically designed to support and empower children of color in a society that can be hostile to diversity."
Beth Hawkins is a renowned education writer for Education Post and a valued contributor to The Seventy Four.
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