ST. PAUL — Minnesota officials have agreed to create a metro-wide student busing program, establish four new magnet schools and order racially isolated charter and district schools to integrate.

The plans, which emerged from settlement talks in the ongoing school desegregation lawsuit Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, were introduced Tuesday, April 27, in the House Education Finance Committee.

It’ll be up to the Legislature to approve the plan, which is estimated to cost $68 million a year.

“After two years and thousands of hours of mediation, we have the opportunity to achieve a significant positive result for children and avoid litigation,” Attorney General Keith Ellison told lawmakers.

Ellison warned that without a settlement, a judge — not lawmakers — could end up deciding what to do about metro school segregation. And a trial would cost around $10 million, he said.

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The class-action lawsuit, filed in 2015 by St. Paul parent Alejandro Cruz-Guzman, charged that segregated schools, enabled by state enrollment laws, are preventing Twin Cities-area students of color from getting an adequate education.

Dan Shulman, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said he brought the lawsuit in order to close achievement gaps and better integrate the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts.

It was fortunate, he said, that attorneys for the state agreed they had problems to address.

Integration plans

The most expensive element of the plan would replace the state’s $80 million Achievement and Integration Program with the $130 million Culturally Responsive Teaching, Learning, Integration and Inclusion Program.

The current program requires more than half of the state’s school districts to create plans every three years that aim to increase racial and economic integration, boost student achievement and reduce academic disparities.

The new program would include charter schools for the first time. It also would change the way schools are identified for participation, by employing economic measures of students’ neighborhoods rather than their race.

Assistant Education Commissioner Darin Korte said that means some school districts with many low-income white students would be required to draft plans and would receive state funds under the new program.

The content of the plans would be different, too. Schools and districts would have to follow a long list of strategies and goals, including anti-bias training, hiring more staff of color, equitable disciplinary practices and culturally responsive instruction.

Desegregation busing

The same school districts and charter schools, if they are in the seven-county metro area — except those where 40-60% of students come from disadvantaged neighborhoods — also would be required to participate in a busing program.

Students from disadvantaged neighborhoods could enroll in a wealthy school in any other participating school district and get free transportation paid by the state. Likewise, students living in wealthier areas could get a free bus to any low-income school.

In addition, each participating student would generate an extra 50% in per-pupil state revenue, which would be split evenly between the resident and serving school districts.

The state’s cost is estimated at $3 million a year.

Magnet schools

The plan also proposes that the state Department of Education by fall of 2023 establish four new magnet schools in the metro area where 40-60% of the students are economically disadvantaged. At least two of the magnet schools must be in Minneapolis or St. Paul.

The schools would be subject to annual performance reviews by a new state oversight board.

Similar to the busing program, school districts that host a magnet school would get an extra 25% in state funding per student enrolled, and each student’s resident district would get its own 25%. The state would cover transportation costs, too.

The magnet program is estimated to cost just under $10 million a year.

Other elements

The settlement also requires the state to add more school-quality information to its Report Card, a public dashboard with demographic and achievement data about every public school and district in the state.

And it requires the state to keep a “repository of evidence-based strategies” for improving various outcomes for historically underserved students.

The bill does not specifically prohibit students from enrolling in any particular school or district, as long as there’s space available.

1995 lawsuit

The settlement of a similar 1995 lawsuit, also litigated by Shulman, resulted in the creation of The Choice Is Yours, which bused students from Minneapolis to suburban districts but largely failed to meet its integration objectives.

The state also has tried special school districts and magnet schools focused on racial integration but they’ve fizzled out.

Shulman is hopeful the new plan will work where other efforts failed because the Department of Education would be in charge and the “financial incentives are more attractive.”

In a statement, the Department of Education said that besides increasing integration, the bill “includes important strategies that we know work to increase equity and achievement for all students, such as implementing culturally responsive teaching and learning practices. These efforts will help us achieve our goal of ensuring every child in Minnesota receives a high-quality education, no matter their race or ZIP code.”

Charter criticism

Three charter schools intervened early in the lawsuit, concerned that any resolution would impose on them onerous new rules.

Those schools’ leaders all testified Tuesday, saying they like the Report Card additions and the catalogue of evidence-based strategies but that new charter school requirements don’t make sense.

Schools where at least 80% of students live in disadvantaged areas, or where those students comprise at least 20% more or less of enrollment compared to similar schools nearby, would have three years to change their demographics or face state sanctions.

Samuel Yigzaw, executive director of Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul, where nearly every student has East African roots, said there’s a misconception that schools like his exclude certain students.

He said Higher Ground spent last spring recruiting door-to-door in diverse neighborhoods near the school and held a carnival for prospective students.

“Unfortunately, that did not yield a single applicant,” he said. “The population we are serving chose us; we did not choose our students.”

Brandon Wait is executive director of Paladin Career and Technical High School in Blaine, where 79% of students get lunch subsidies. The new integration program, which would require his school’s demographics to be within 20 percentage points of Anoka-Hennepin high schools, would force him to recruit more white and higher-income students, he said.