Separate But Equal

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.)

Minneapolis isn't alone. The yellow school buses that became integration's political symbol are still running all over the country, but more and more they transport loads of same-race children through same-race neighborhoods to same-race schools. Nationally, almost two-thirds of black students and three-fourths of Hispanic students attend schools where fewer than half the students are white. "The only difference the intervening years have made," one researcher wrote, "is that minorities are now more likely to attend segregated schools in the Northeast and the Midwest than in the South."

And the courts are no longer standing in the way. In a string of cases through the late 1980s and early '90s, school districts argued that while they might not have succeeded at desegregating, they should no longer be forced to try. Most of the time they won. One exception was a Kansas City case in which a federal judge ordered the state to work toward integrating city and suburban schools. But that ruling was swiftly overturned. In one of his first Supreme Court opinions, Justice Clarence Thomas (who replaced Brown vs. Board lawyer Thurgood Marshall on the court) wrote that "it never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior."

What Thomas failed to mention was that being predominantly black isn't what most inner-city schools struggle with; it's being predominantly poor, more so than at the height of segregation. That's perhaps most true in the Twin Cities, where people of color are more likely to be poor than in any other metro area. In the Minneapolis public schools, 55 percent of students now qualify for free or reduced lunches; in some of the most heavily minority buildings the number approaches 100 percent.

And the differences show up in the thing most people want to measure schools by: test scores. For the first 15 years after Minneapolis's desegregation order came down, the numbers for kids of color kept moving closer to those of whites. Then, starting in the late 1980s, they plummeted. Today, students of color in grades one to five score more than 30 percentage points lower on average than their white counterparts. Similarly, predominantly poor schools score lower on average than rich ones.

In educationese, these discrepancies are called "the learning gap," and there is an abundance of noise about combating it. The school board has made that its top priority. But out on the streets, says Larry Sawyer, a lot of people are coming to a simpler conclusion: They want their kids on the right side of the gap.

Sawyer is an interesting character. He's running for school board this year, the first Republican to make a serious new shot at public office in Minneapolis for something like two decades. He's got money (his campaign spent more money per vote in the September primary election than any other in recent history) and prominent backing; his list of campaign donors reads like a Who's Who of local CEOs, from KSTP's Stan Hubbard to Dayton Hudson's Robert Ulrich. He's also endorsed by Democrats such as City Council members Walt Dziedzic and Alice Rainville, former Council members Mark Kaplan and Steve Cramer, and former Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Spartz (who, as Sawyer cheerfully admits, spent the better part of his political career "running every sane Republican out of Minneapolis politics").

This isn't Sawyer's first foray into education politics. He helped create an experimental public school in north Minneapolis in the late 1980s; General Mills, where he is government relations director, contributed $500,000 to the effort. In return, the school district agreed to cut the school's class sizes to 14 students and eliminate social workers and specialists including art and music teachers. In 1990, school officials touted that experiment when they asked taxpayers to approve extra money for smaller class sizes. But by then Sawyer was on the other side, leading a Chamber of Commerce campaign against the referendum. (He says the schools weren't committed to the drastic reforms required.) A year later, he pulled his eighth-grade daughter out of Andersen Open and sent her to a Catholic school.  

Unlike some Republicans, including Governor Arne Carlson, Sawyer says he doesn't support tax-money vouchers to subsidize parents who do what he did: "I believe strongly in the common school. I believe that poor kids need an environment where they can see how those of us who made it did it." The problem, he says, is that there are too many of those poor kids in the schools now--too many kids in trouble, who need extra help. "Research indicates--how can you say this?--that if you put a small number of nonperforming kids into a large number of performing kids, the nonperformers will get pulled up. And vice versa, too. Right now, the easiest way to get your kid into a better environment is to move three suburbs out. That's what's been driving this system."

Sawyer talks about a lot of changes he'd like to see, but two stand out. One, schools must "provide a quiet and reverent environment for students to learn... The right of a student to be disruptive must be balanced against another student's right to learn." And two, the kids should go back to neighborhood schools. This, he figures, would save a significant portion of the $25 million the district spends each year on transportation. It would also save time, which could be plowed back into the school day so it once again extends to 3 p.m. and beyond ("There's nothing like after-school detention to focus a kid's mind"). Finally, and not coincidentally, it would further separate the "performers" from the "nonperformers."

Sawyer says he wouldn't force kids to attend their neighborhood school. There would be citywide open enrollment, and if some schools got crowded, "that would be great. We'll add portable [classrooms], we'll split the school in half." Still, he acknowledges, some schools will soon become the domain of middle-class white kids, while others will be heavily minority and poor. "That's going to happen. I won't deny that. The real question is, can you then take a school like that and lengthen its school day, implement strict discipline policies, and build it into something where those kids really have a chance? If it's a tossup between educating the kids and integrating, I would choose education. If I can get the minority kids competitive, they can take care of their own integration."

Sawyer might have stood out with this kind of talk just a few years ago; now, his vision is becoming increasingly popular among politicos. "Support Neighborhood Schools" was the slogan on a flier by the Metropolitan Good Government Coalition, a bipartisan conclave of heavy hitters that injected itself into the school board race for the first time this year with an endorsement for three challengers: Sawyer, independent Stephen Hirsch, and DFLer Louis King.

Among the group's backers is City Council member Steve Minn, an independent who represents one of the whitest and highest-income wards in the city. Some 38 percent of families in the ward have kids in private schools, the highest proportion of any area in the city--which is why, Minn notes, "It's probably not insensitive of me to say I'm considering that for my 4-year-old. I'm really scared."

Minn, like candidate Stephen Hirsch, makes his living in real estate, which means that both talk a great deal about who moves and why. According to a 1993 city survey of Minneapolis homeowners, 23 percent of families with kids at home were planning to move to the suburbs in the next five years; of those, 14 percent cited better schools as the reason. And according to school district data, "kindergarten age is the most frequent time for children to leave Minneapolis; 2,400 5-year-olds left between 1985 and 1990, compared to only 300 17-year-olds."

One oft-cited reason for this is that parents don't want their little ones on the bus. Actually, kids ride the bus just as much in the suburbs as in the city, especially in the family-favorite outer ring where walking to school would mean hiking across a couple of freeways. "People are just fine with the bus," Hirsch acknowledges, "if they feel that it's going somewhere where they'll get a quality education. An awful lot of them are saying, at least we'll have a choice of being bused to an area that we know."

The way to do that in Minneapolis, Hirsch says, is with neighborhood schools. If he had his way, each building would be run and partly governed by the surrounding neighborhood; barring that, parents would at least be guaranteed a spot in the school closest to them. Asked whether that would boil down to resegregation, Hirsch says chances are the answer is yes. "But I say this to the people who bring that up: We are already out of compliance [with desegregation guidelines]." The schools that end up in poor neighborhoods would get something out of the changes too, such as the flexibility to have "a strict discipline policy."  

Hirsch says he's convinced that neighborhood schools would bring back some of the kids whose parents now send them to private schools; in addition, they'd give the city a "marketing advantage." As Minn phrases the same idea, "The school that that house is assigned to should appear on the [real-estate] listing sheet." Three bedrooms, two baths, Barton Open.

And, Minn insists, it's not about keeping kids of color out; Southwest may be comparatively wealthy, but it's not going to stay lily-white. "As the community of color continues to increase the number of people who are middle and upper-income, we're naturally going to benefit from their selection. Particularly with the city's requirement for residency, we're picking up more people with diverse backgrounds. And I'm also hearing from folks who have moved out to 99-percent white suburbs who say, 'I don't fit there and I'm coming back to the city.'"

One of those people is Louis King, who lived in Burnsville for several years before moving to 41st and Park Avenue South in Minneapolis--not the Thirteenth Ward, but one of Minneapolis's oldest middle-class black neighborhoods. King is also running for school board; his face appears on the Good Government Coalition flier next to those of Sawyer and Hirsch. Unlike the other two, his odds of getting elected are extremely good. He's got the DFL's endorsement, along with incumbent board members Ann Kaari, Judy Farmer, and Ann Berget.

If Hirsch and Sawyer's posture represents a kind of anti-establishment line in school board politics--both blast the current board's record, and Sawyer has been running a TV attack ad--King is more cautious, offering that his main contribution would be to "diversify the set of skills on the board." He runs a program called Two or More, which works with private companies to create jobs for inner-city kids. Before that, he was an Army recruiter, traveling to schools all over the state.

"In those farm towns, the school is the center of the community," King says. "We don't have that here. What we have is a travesty. This grew out of a policy that felt that if kids sat next to each other, that would make all the problems in the community go away. We have to rethink that now. We still have segregated housing and communities, and the kids who sat next to each other 20 years ago aren't living next to each other now. At the same time, the population of students of color is growing throughout the system, which means that no matter what you do you're going to have increased busing."

So, he concludes, there's not really any reason not to try neighborhood schools--albeit a watered-down version. "Anyone telling people that there's a school on your block, and one coming to your block over here soon, and there's going to be choice at the same time, has not thought it through. I envision community schools that are supported by hub neighborhoods that folks can basically get to by a short drive or walk or bus ride, rather than the kid being bused clean across town."

Community schools. That's the word the current school board has used to describe what it's already decided to do--with little fanfare, considering the gravity of the matter. Earlier this year, the district came up with a "District Options Project Report" under which some schools would remain magnets, but a growing number would be designated for kids living in a not-yet-specified area around them. This June, the school board approved the concept.

This is not, officials admit, a way to get kids off the bus. As former Minneapolis NAACP President Matt Little notes, the neighborhood school in the classic sense went the way of the corner drugstore and the local grocery long ago: Few parents want to send their 6-year-olds off walking to school, even for a couple of blocks. And they couldn't if they wanted to. Roughly two-thirds of Minneapolis school-age kids, says Assistant to the Superintendent David Dudycha, live in the city's hub, while two-thirds of the school buildings are in the "rim" neighborhoods further out. Providing a school for each neighborhood would require extensive and expensive construction; not building them would mean that the kids in the "hub" would bear most of the bus-riding burden.  

But if the proposal changes little on the transportation front, the implications for racial balance are staggering. The District Options Report suggests dividing the city into four quadrants, and community schools could diverge up to 25 percent from the demographics of their quadrant; that means southwest schools could be up to 100 percent--or, according to another document, 70 percent--white, and northwest schools up to 100 percent minority.

This is a long way from the spirit of Brown, from the city's own deseg ruling, and from the axiom that dominated desegregation talk not too long ago: that for kids to grow up learning and living together is in itself a good thing and worth protecting. The best most school officials are now willing to say is that kids in a segregated environment "cannot learn all they need to achieve in this world" (school superintendent Peter Hutchinson)--but that even so, desegregation simply isn't worth the money or the hassle.

Oddly, the public at large seems less sanguine than officials. In a survey commissioned by the school district last year, a majority of parents preferred a citywide magnet system over assignment by neighborhood. Only among non-parents was there a slight edge for neighborhood schools. (By contrast, when the Minneapolis district asked for community input for its Quality Schools study, one of the top items on parents' agenda was changing the current insane schedule that has high schoolers starting classes at 7:15 a.m. Two years later, the schedule hasn't changed.)

Of course, school officials argue, "community schools" are really just one small part of a big change in philosophy. "We realized we have been asking the wrong questions," as Hutchinson puts it. "The question is: Are we going to hold buildings accountable for [student] achievement? To date, we have not. We have said we will hold people accountable for the racial composition of their buildings, not whether anyone learns anything."

Still, school officials couldn't have made their philosophical change of mind official without some political cover. It came earlier this year from Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, who announced in her State of the City address earlier this year that "I want to share something with you, and I don't take these words lightly: Times have changed. Today, no single racial group constitutes a statistical majority of students." The schools, she said, should consider alternatives to busing kids "a distance equal to a trip to the moon."

The speech was greeted with a lot of clamor about how the mayor was pushing the envelope on race and politics. But in a lot of ways, she'd only echoed what a lot of people had already been saying. Record suspension and discipline rates for minority students have long had parents of color wondering whether schools run by a still predominantly white-controlled system can or want to educate their kids. Perhaps, many wonder, things would be better if the kids stayed near home to learn with their own, from their own.

Linda McFarland says all three of her older sons were steered to special programs which "prepare them for the penitentiary, not for college. These are places where you go in with a key and you leave with a key." And it's not, McFarland notes, that she wants her kids mollycoddled: "My son failed a lot of his classes last year, and they promoted him right on to the eighth grade. He should be in seventh grade. But I don't think the system is prepared to deal with black males, or black children, period. They just pass them through. We need more faculty of color, especially black males. And if we had neighborhood schools, if it's just in the neighborhood and nothing else changes, I'd be against it. But if the faculty reflects the neighborhood--I'd say, if the shoe fits, wear it."

And that, says school board candidate King, may hold even if the shoe is a size too small--if resegregating minority kids is the first step toward abandoning them, which is after all the historical pattern. "If you look at it from a cynical point of view, that situation exists right now. People will say, 'We don't really see them having done that much for us anyway.' I don't think it's that simple, but there's the survivalist point of view that says, 'Let's just take care of our own kids. Let's just have the kids in our neighborhoods, and we'll make them better.'"

There is some evidence that children of color can do well in a segregated environment. Four Winds School, the school district's new American Indian magnet program, registered a big test-score jump among its majority Native American students in the first year it operated. But Four Winds is, precisely, a magnet, with all the resources and excitement that go along with that status. Neighborhood schools would be segregated not by parents' choice--under the school board's plan, kids would be assigned to the closest school with space for them, unless the parent opts for a magnet--but by circumstance.  

"It would be naive to say that disparity won't exist or that there's not a possibility for it to exist," King acknowledges. "However, if I'm elected, it's my job as a policymaker to have mechanisms in place to review that. And if we discuss it publicly, my hope would be that the public responds and gives me the support I need to ensure that it doesn't happen."

Hope, however, is the operative word there. And if you're looking for evidence on whether politics will fix segregation, one place to check is the ongoing debate about metrowide desegregation--where, so far, integration has lost rounds one, two, and three.

Right now, Minneapolis and St. Paul schools are 62 percent and 52 percent minority, respectively; Stillwater's and Forest Lake's are 97 percent white. In Minneapolis, 55 percent of students qualify as poor by federal school-lunch standards, compared to six percent in Lakeville and Eden Prairie.

Last month, three white and four black students from Minneapolis, along with their parents and the NAACP, sued the governor, the Board of Education, and some 15 other officials in state and metro government. The class-action complaint started out with the Brown vs. Board argument that "a segregated education is per se an inadequate education." It went on: "Minneapolis public schools contain a far greater proportion of students living in poverty in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty than do suburban schools. This... directly results in lower school achievement, wholly without regard to considerations of race. Racial segregation... further exacerbates these problems.

"Because the Minneapolis public schools must devote disproportionately large resources to dealing with the many difficulties that accompany poverty and racial segregation, [they] lack adequate resources to provide and maintain staffing, staff development, facilities, textbooks, science equipment, computers, sports, extra-curricular activities, and other necessities of an adequate education."

This is a new kind of case in the annals of desegregation, not because it tackles an entire metro area--that's been done since the early 1970s, with varying results--but because it says students have a right to an adequate education, and that they can't get that when some schools are poor and others rich. The argument has apparently been made in only a handful of other cases around the country; so far, one has been decided for the plaintiffs and one against.

The Minneapolis NAACP suit won't actually go to court for months, perhaps years; meanwhile, lawyers and politicians will likely be negotiating for some kind of remedy in or out of court. It won't be the first time. Seven years ago, the Legislature told the state Board of Education to look into how metro schools could become more racially balanced--a concept that immediately set off howls over "mandatory busing" from Minneapolis to Edina or vice versa.

Actually, the board never considered that idea. What it did discuss was asking districts to create desegregation plans, which could mean things like magnet schools drawing from a wide area. Minneapolis has six such schools right now, including three catering to downtown workers and one at the Mall of America. And St. Paul is working with Roseville, Maplewood, and North St. Paul to build an interdistrict magnet.

The board talked about this for two years. This April, it finally passed a draft proposal confirming that all racially imbalanced districts (as defined by an elaborate set of percentages) should create desegregation plans. Arne Carlson's education department (now the Department of Children, Families, and Learning) made its opposition clear, and so did many suburban legislators and mayors. Georgina Stevens, who chaired the board, says people started telling her she was pushing too hard.

In September, Stevens says she was accosted by another board member who suggested she step down because the board needed a white president as it tackled the final decision on desegregation. She did, and resigned from the board in protest. Two weeks later, her former colleagues voted to investigate how integration could be achieved "without numerical quotas." Perhaps, it was suggested, a school could be considered integrated if it was 100 percent white, but had a multicultural curriculum; perhaps a 100-percent black school would be fine if it had an exchange program with a white one. Perhaps racial balance didn't really mean racial balance.

Minneapolis school officials talk a lot about how they still think metro desegregation is going to happen--not by moving poor and minority kids around, but by helping their families move to the suburbs. But real-life politics make any widespread transformation a romantic prospect at best; in most neighborhoods, city and suburban alike, proposals to bring in poor people get the kind of welcome usually reserved for toxic-waste dumps.  

In Minneapolis, the City Council has already started fighting over where to create low-income housing for 350 families likely to be displaced from the Near North housing projects. When Mayor Sayles Belton proposed a set of fuzzy "housing principles" emphasizing things like balance and equity, council members almost got them killed. And on the metro score, the Legislature beat back housing-equity legislation twice before endorsing a much watered-down law to encourage affordable housing in the suburbs. According to current guidelines, an affordable home can cost up to $115,000.

Perhaps the oddest leap of logic in the neighborhood schools debate is that, after years of lamenting their separate-and-unequal status in the metro, Minneapolis school officials now seem eager to replicate the same thing within the district itself. If--as the city contends--poor kids didn't get what they deserved even when they were side-by-side with those of the middle class, what are the chances for improvement when polarization becomes institutional?

A footnote here: On the financial front, public education in Minnesota may be at a grim turning point. The state that historically put more cash into public education than any other has recently fallen behind the national average in education spending growth. Schools everywhere have been feeling the hangover of the 1980s as owners of overbuilt office towers asked for and got tax reductions. And in Minneapolis, the school board was so busy with its community schools plan this year that it essentially forgot to put its tax referendum on the ballot; the current authorization expires after next year, and its chances for approval would have been a lot better in a school board-only election.

In other words: The pie is shrinking, and competition for the pieces is getting fiercer. Yet, the way Superintendent Hutchinson puts it, resegregation won't be a losing proposition for poor and minority kids. To the contrary: The district, he argues, needs to face the fact that poor and minority schools must get a bigger cut. "You can't have it both ways. You can't say we're willing to live with massive inequalities in the way students are assigned, which we have right now, and still pretend that it's all equal in the way we distribute the money. What we're saying is that kids have these academic needs, and resources will follow those needs."

"We need more money to educate the most impoverished kids," board member Bill Green summarizes the gamble. "One question I think the city as a whole, and a lot of parents in particular, haven't answered is: If they want neighborhood schools, are they willing to live with a situation where their school, which is stable and middle class, is going to get less money than a school in the ghetto?"

You do the math. CP

Interns Mary Ellen Egan, Aaron Spitzer, and Rick Zanders contributed to this story.

School board seats are the only thing on the ballot in Minneapolis in next Tuesday's election. The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. To find out where to vote, call 673-2070. If you're not registered, you'll need to bring a current driver's license, state ID, or someone who can vouch for you.

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