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Associated Press, Published August 11 2013

Minnesota school-integration plan adds focus on grades

ST. PAUL — After spending more than $1 billion dollars trying to create more racial balance in segregated Minnesota schools, state education leaders think they have a better way to make sure all students have equal opportunity.

The new plan focuses on student achievement, and it also allows the state Department of Education to step in when districts are falling short.

For more than 10 years, as many as 134 districts with large concentrations of minority students got extra funds to help them diversify. But the number of racially isolated schools — -- where minority enrollment is 20 percentage points higher than in comparable schools in their districts — has grown by 50 percent. Also, the achievement gap between minority students and whites remains among the worst in the nation.

"The program didn't work," said state Rep. Sondra Erickson, a Republican who sits on the House Education Policy Committee. "How can your achievement gap grow and grow and grow when you have a program that was supposed to address it?"

In 2011, Republican lawmakers decided that integration funding should be overhauled. They cited a report by the state legislative auditor that found the program had no clear mission and poor oversight from the state Education Department.

A new plan, approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, aims to improve oversight and impose stronger accountability.

Now, districts that receive funding for integration efforts will be required to focus the money not just on diversification but also on programs to close the achievement gap. The Education Department will review the districts' plans, which will be drawn up with community input, and department officials will have the power to step in and redirect spending for any districts that fail to deliver results after three years.

Brenda Cassellius, the state education commissioner, said the changes are meant to improve oversight while still giving school leaders autonomy.

"We've added accountability at every step," Cassellius said.

Some groups question whether integration efforts are even necessary. For example, the Center for the American Experiment, a group that advocates free-market solutions, argues that integration doesn't help minority students. Katherine Kersten, a senior fellow with the center, wrote a report criticizing using "race-based" remedies to narrow the achievement gap.

Instead, she and other critics argue that students who live in communities where public schools are failing should be given more choices. Those children need alternative schools that have longer days, data-driven instruction and stronger student and family support

"We know what works — high expectations, rigorous courses and excellent teaching," she said.

Erickson is also skeptical of the new oversight system. By allowing the Education Department to set the bar for measuring success, all that does is get bureaucrats over-involved, she said.

"Hold them to the standards we have," Erickson said. "Why do bureaucrats need to be involved?"