Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Integration Revenue is Focus of Legislative Town Hall on Education

Opposition to integration funding cuts dominated an Omnibus Education Bill input session sponsored by the MN House DFL Caucus at Arlington High School in St. Paul on Wednesday, April 20th.

As policy observers know, omnibus bills are crafted by the Legislature, currently led by the Republican party, while the Governor's priorities are established in a budget bill brought forth by the Democratic party.

"This is my 19th year in the Legislature, but the first time I have ever carried the budget bill for the Governor," noted Rep. Mindy Greiling, District 54A, who has served under all non-Democratic governors prior to this year.   "There isn't one thing in it that I oppose."

Greiling could not say the same for HF 934, the Omnibus Education bill currently under consideration at the Legislature, a bill she cited as one that is moving opposite the equitable direction set by PS Minnesota. This organization has advocated for an entirely new state education funding formula-- one that assigns additional formula weight to "at-risk students"-- since the release of its first report in November 2006.

Following Greiling (and event-convening Rep. Debra Hilstrom's) lead, many of the approximate 300 district officials, school board members, and educational advocates in attendance voiced concerns on the tack being taken by the current MN House leadership.

Several speakers saw the notion of eliminating integration funding to fly in the face of closing the student achievement gap between white students and students of color.

"All Minnesotans can agree that what attracts & builds the economy is an incredibly strong workforce," said a St. Paul school board member. "But today is much different from 1960, as some districts have as many as 70% students of color, with 50% who speak a different language at home .... We have to have all people live and work together, and it's incredibly foolish to cut the integration funding," the board member added.

Beyond just the infusion of dollars for existing districts to use for integration-related activities like after school language programs, home-school liaisons, and teacher diversity training, there are a few districts in the metropolitan area that were voluntarily created for the sole purpose of integrating-- with the East Metropolitan Integration District (or EMID) being one.

Based on input provided by two EMID students who praised their educational arrangement as "providing a second home for students who find it too stressful at their first home," the elimination of integration funding in favor of statewide innovation  programs (as key Republicans have proposed) may put such districts in jeopardy of discontinuation.

St. Paul & Mpls. Schools Superintendents

Yet another reality of integration funding involves the most sizable  student constituency that it serves-- English Language Learners (ELL), which consists of students for whom English is not the primary language spoken at home. "In working with ELL students, we're not just talking about new arrivals, but refugees, and integration funding helps these people in a proper way," said Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

Bruce Hentges, a St. Cloud Area School District school board member, remarked that "some have tried to divide us" on the issue of integration aid, before adding his district "identifies with Minneapolis and St. Paul" on the potential that integration will be removed from the education bill under consideration.  According to Hentges, greater than 50% of St. Cloud's student population qualifies for the Free & Reduced Lunch program, and the district also has a significant number of of English Language Learners.

Hentges then encouraged the Dayton Administration to "hang tough" and asked: "What things will the Governor hang do to ensure equitable education funding across the state of Minnesota?"

"We will not compromise by pitting one group, school, or city against another," replied Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

"In 1971, Governor Wendell Anderson held out until November, and we got the Minnesota Miracle that funded our schools," Rep. Greiling reminded the assembled group.

A Brief History of Integration Revenue

While broad efforts to integrate school systems have been going on since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1957, Minnesota's integration revenue program specifically funded just the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth districts between 1987 and 2000-- to the tune of $56 million in the final year of this stretch.

Beginning in 2001, additional districts were added into the program based on new eligibility criteria set by the Minnesota Department of Education.  For the 2010-11 school year, about 110 school districts required to file integration plans received $93 million, with 70% (or $65 million) of it coming from state sources and 30% (or $28 million) from local property tax levies.

In 2005, the Office of the Legislative Auditor was tasked with the responsibility of evaluating MN's Integration Revenue program.  In its review, the OLA found the purpose of the integration was not clear, that school districts varied widely in how it used its integration monies, that the Minnesota Department of Education had not provided consistent oversight of the program, and that the integration revenue funding formula has had some unintended consequences.

Principal OLA recommendations included revising the integration formula, and also giving the Department of Education the authority to approve the integration budgets of the Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth school districts, who together, received over 40% of the $93 million integration dollars spent statewide in the 2010-11 school year.  The Department of Education, which was led by Republican Commissioner Alice Seagren at the time, supported every recommendation the report contained-- a level of departmental acceptance almost unheard of in the realm of state government auditing.

In January 2011, the Minnesota School Integration Council performed a comprehensive review of the current Minnesota desegregation rule and Minnesota Statute Section 124D.86, which governs the use and allocation of integration revenue.  The Council's recommendations included:

1. Clarifying the purpose of integration policy
2. Establishing and enforcing accountability measures
3. Identifying and supporting effective practices tied to results
4. Seeking partnerships and supporting collaboration &
5. Distributing resources to meet outcomes

Now it is up to the Legislature and the Governor's administration to see where the program will go from there.

Primary sources for this integration report: 
September 2010: Minnesota School Finance, A Guide for Legislators 

A Framework for a New Minnesota Education Funding Formula 

OLA School District Integration Revenue Evaluation Report

Statewide Taskforce on School Integration Report

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