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Minnesota's open enrollment program increases racial segregation, new study by the Law School's Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity finds

January 14, 2013

The University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity released a new study Friday, Jan.11 providing evidence that Minnesota’s open enrollment program increases racial segregation in area schools.

Minnesota's open enrollment program became law in 1988, the first of its kind in the nation. It allows families to enroll their children in school districts outside their neighborhoods and was implemented to allow parents a wider choice in matching a child’s needs with an appropriate school. However, the study says, it "also enables moves based on less noble motivations that can accelerate racial or economic transition in a racially diverse school district."

The study, conducted from 2000-10 on the Twin Cities metro area’s 69 school districts, was written by Law School Professor Myron Orfield, director of the Institute since 2003, and Thomas Luce, Ph.D., the Institute’s research director, both recognized experts on metropolitan governance and related issues.

Their analysis of racial and economic effects shows that open enrollment:

  • Increased segregation overall, with the trend increasing over time
  • Resulted in substantial losses of students from large city districts to nearby districts
  • Facilitated a pattern of racial transition in certain inner- and middle-suburban districts, which lost large numbers of white students to nearby predominantly white districts
  • Facilitated “white flight” from more diverse districts to middle suburban districts
  • Had a limited overall effect on the total students in suburban hub districts but facilitated the flow of white students from nearby districts in racial transition

In studying the overall impact of inter-district student moves on racial balance, the authors divided the moves into integrative, segregative, and neutral. They found that as participation in open enrollment and diversity in schools grew, “fewer moves were race neutral.”

The more detailed analysis by type of school district (large urban districts and three categories of suburban districts) indicated that students moving out of central urban districts were more likely to be white and non-poor than students remaining in the district. Enrollment flow in suburban districts was complex and variable, the study found, but in general, diverse districts “are losing white students to other predominantly white districts nearby, with no compensating flows in the opposite direction.”

To stem the inter-district flows that are contributing to racial and economic segregation, Orfield and Luce recommend reworking the Integration Revenue Program (which provides desegregation-plan and education-initiative funding to certain districts based on the number of “protected-class students” relative to the number in adjoining districts) to more efficiently support districts that are doing the most to integrate schools and classrooms.

In addition, they recommend that districts with racially unbalanced open enrollment be required to join mandatory multi-district integration districts; that inter-district enrollment flows be monitored; and that when racially unbalanced flows occur, receiving and sending districts be required to cooperate in working to ensure fairness.

The Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity studies how laws, policies and practices affect development patterns in U.S. metropolitan regions. Through top-level scholarship, mapping and advocacy, it provides policymakers, planning officials and community organizations with resources to address taxation, land use, housing, governance, and education reform.

"Open Enrollment and Racial Segregation in the Twin Cities: 2000-2010" is available on the Institute’s website at www.law.umn.edu/metro.

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