ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
The Organizing Apprenticeship Project lays out 16 solutions to Minnesota’s education opportunity
Is the following set of facts just a coincidence, or a sign of subtle racial antipathy by Minnesota’s white majority political establishment toward non-whites and immigrants?
Here are the facts: Over the last decade, as our highly publicized demographic shift to a more cosmopolitan and multi-colored society has accelerated, the level of state government financial support for public schools, decided by a disproportionately white political power structure in the state Legislature, has stagnated.
From 2003 to 2011, the number of immigrants and students of color in our public schools increased sharply, from about 160,000 to 215,000, or by about 34 percent. Meanwhile, per pupil state aid to school districts, adjusted for inflation, declined by 15 percent.
Those figures are contained in a recent report by the Organizing Apprenticeship Project (OAP), a strong emerging force for racial equity in Minnesota and a group active in both grassroots organizing and policy analysis. The OAP taps a dedicated corps of Minnesota community-builders and researchers, most of whom are African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American and immigrants.
And the OAP is a decidedly constructive force. At a recent “Racial Equity Gathering” that attracted hundreds to a south Minneapolis Unitarian Universalist church, participants broke into groups focused on eliciting positive and specific suggestions for advancing racial equity. And speaker after speaker emphasized that the movement was moving far beyond assessing blame and toward finding proactive solutions.
The group’s “Racial Equity Policy Brief: 16 Solutions that Deliver Equity and Excellence in Education” is fact-based and compelling. It simply notes the decline in state funding that has accompanied the rise in minority enrollment, but goes no further in assessing cause-and-effect or motivation.
The report does note that “almost all white students in Minnesota are routinely taught by and see people in authority – in front of the classroom and in textbooks – who share their culture, language and history.” Further, it finds that “disparities in academic achievement, declines in state aid, over-representation in special education, and discrimination in school discipline are all elements that force students of color into the school-to-prison pipeline. … Acknowledging, understanding and closing these gaps are critical if we ever hope to close the more publicly recognized achievement gaps.”
The report comes up with an interesting quantification of the challenge, a statistic that shows us that closing this gap is doable. The report estimates that the gap for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment II test could be closed if the scores for some 60,000 kids of color across the state rose. “Surely, closing this gap is attainable. What we need is public will,’’ the report says.
Among the 16 solutions and initiatives featured in the report – many of which align with the Growth & Justice policy prescription for Smart Investments in Minnesota’s Students – are these: more funding for high-quality early childhood education and access to it by an additional 18,000 children of color and low-income children below the age of 5; not just hiring but recruitment, development and retention of top-quality teachers of color, modeled on Illinois’ Grow Your Own campaign; more commitment to the equity cause from top leadership in every school district, with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland a key example; and partnerships between schools and community leaders, like the successful SmartKids parent engagement program in Rochester, Minnesota.
Closing this opportunity gap is not just the right thing to do morally – and it is certainly that – but it’s also a legal, constitutional obligation.
In a recent Star Tribune commentary, two of the state’s leading lawyers, Roberta Walburn and Mike Ciresi, laid down an airtight case for racial equity, based on a Minnesota Constitution that is unequivocal about an obligation for the state to provide “a general and uniform system of public schools” and one that is also “thorough and efficient.”
Noting that almost 90 percent of African American fourth-graders read below grade level, scoring worse than their peers in Alabama, Walburn and Ciresi concluded that “it is time for our Legislature to fulfill its duty to provide a basic, adequate education for not just some – but all – of Minnesota’s children.”
And finally, if moral and legal obligations are not enough, there’s the compelling, overwhelming consensus by economists and top business leaders that Minnesota will lose its economic advantage if it doesn’t close these gaps.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s statement on Education and Workforce Development Policy states the challenge in almost the same words as the OAP:
“Minnesota continues to have one of the widest achievement gaps in the country – a gap that persists among racial groups as well as across socioeconomic levels. In addition, Minnesota’s demographics will change considerably by 2020. The populations that are expected to grow are currently on the low end of the achievement gap, which is most worrisome for employers. In 2018, 70 percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require some training beyond high school.”
Solutions for closing the opportunity gap may differ. But we have broad agreement in Minnesota that it exists, and that for moral, legal and economic reasons, we must reduce this inequity now.
A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, June 30, 2011.