Separate But Equal

"Neighborhood schools" are coming to Minneapolis packaged with talk of responsibility and community empowerment. But the bottom line is that the age of integrating public schools is over.

Linda McFarland went to Warrington, the black school on the south side, on the site where Sabathani Community Center now stands. Actually, there were a lot of white kids there; but back then most Minneapolis schools were all white, and everyone knew which ones weren't.

It wasn't until McFarland was in high school that the color line crumbled. In 1973 a U.S. District court judge's ruling on a lawsuit filed by the NAACP forced the Minneapolis school district to desegregate. McFarland remembers the busloads of white kids from the south and southwest who came to integrate Central High. The city had finally caught the wave that started in 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark Supreme Court decision that found "separate but equal" schools unconstitutional.

Two decades later, the Twin Cities are statistically one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country. Minority enrollment in the Minneapolis schools has reached 62 percent while school districts farther out remain 90 and 95 percent white. State officials, who once talked of taking integration metrowide, are now officially moving to abandon the idea. And in Minneapolis, chances look good that the district will return to a modified version of the neighborhood school system Judge Earl Larson found unconstitutional 22 years ago.

Linda McFarland now has three of her own kids in the Minneapolis schools. Another has graduated; one dropped out. Her eighth-grader, Gregory, is one of seven plaintiffs in a new NAACP lawsuit that claims Twin Cities schools are once again segregating minority kids at the cost of a decent education. But ask his mother what she thinks of integration, and the answer becomes complicated. "I'm 100 percent for this lawsuit," McFarland says. "The whole system needs to be restructured. But as I told the Star Tribune, I do not believe that busing the children to the suburbs is the answer. I don't think that because my kid sits next to a white kid in Edina he's going to learn more. That's, frankly, bullshit.

"But here's what I also said, and the Star Tribune didn't print this. There are a lot of low-income white kids that are my children's friends that are suffering the same way. They're missing something too. And it messes people up, because they can't say it's because they're children of color. I think the issue is being confused."

In the beginning, desegregation was a Southern story; north of the Mason-Dixon, there were no signs saying "whites only" or "colored only" on the schools. They weren't necessary. In Minneapolis until 1949, the courts enforced real estate covenants that kept white neighborhoods that way; for decades afterward, real estate agents and landlords followed the same patterns. When the City Council built public housing, it made sure that little of it went up in white neighborhoods.

And since kids were assigned to schools based on where they lived, segregation mostly took care of itself. Students were allowed to transfer across neighborhood lines for transparently racial reasons, and when black schools ran out of room, the board built on to them instead of using empty slots at white schools. Job applications for would-be teachers featured interviewer comments like "A dark-complexioned colored boy with a red vest. Don't give him a job" or "A big fat, colored woman with seven kids."

The NAACP sued in 1971; until then, the school board's tentative attempts at desegregation had met with widespread hostility. Two years later, the judge approved the board's new plan, essentially the system that remains in place to this day. Some 15 percent of schools became magnets, with programs such as fine arts, math and science, or performing arts. Of the rest, most specialize in particular teaching styles, like Montessori or Fundamentals. Parents can choose any school in the city; for those that are oversubscribed, a lottery determines who gets in. And no school can deviate more than 15 percent from the average racial distribution for the grades it serves. In 1974, when 80 percent of the kids in K-8 were white, no school could be more than 95 percent or less than 65 percent white.

On its face, the idea had a lot going for it, promising not only to integrate the schools, but also attract a new generation of parents. Middle-class boomers, who had begun to gravitate toward private alternative schools, could now find the same services in the public system. With some juggling, they were almost sure to get their kids into a magnet. And with enrollments declining throughout the 1970s, funding for special programs was comparatively plentiful.

By the 1980s, however, the strains started to show. As the poor got poorer, the comfortable headed for the suburbs. In 1974, Minneapolis had around 55,000 public-school kids, and four of five were white; in 1989, it had 40,000, and half were children of color.

In 1983, Judge Larson released Minneapolis from federal court supervision based on the promise that the state would enforce desegregation guidelines. Ten years later, kids in Minneapolis can go to a school that's 95 percent minority, and another that's 60 percent white. Nine of the district's 62 schools are in flagrant violation of the 15-percent rule, and the district says it's unable to fix the problem. Earlier this year, the state Board of Education announced that it would no longer enforce the rule. (All these numbers concern elementary schools, as does most of the desegregation discussion. High schools and middle schools somehow don't command the level of emotion elementaries do; besides, there are too few of them to make a neighborhood system practical.)

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