Minnesota is resegregating its schools, and it’s bad for all of us

A teacher readies her classroom. Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images.

School segregation is often thought of as a 20th century problem — ancient history, something that was solved in the 1960s and 1970s. But in Minnesota, history is moving backwards. The state has banned segregation three times since the Civil War. And yet today, its schools are more segregated than ever. To the surprise of many, most of the resegregation has taken place in the 21st century. 

Minnesota’s first school segregation ban was enacted in 1869, almost a century in advance of the civil rights movement. At that time, Saint Paul maintained a single all-black school for its approximately 200 black residents. The state’s Republican legislature prohibited segregated educational facilities, and took the extra step of barring state funding to any segregated school. The Saint Paul school promptly shuttered. 

Since then, two more state statutes have prohibited segregation, once in 1967 and once again, for good measure, in 2011. Minnesota also faced a federal desegregation order in 1972 and settled a statewide desegregation case in 1999. 

But 151 years after the first attempt to integrate Minnesota schools, the state’s students of color are yet again finding themselves in racially isolated schools. In the Twin Cities — and especially in their working-class suburbs — K-12 education is cleaving along racial lines.  

Decades of research have shown that racially segregated schools cause a bevy of social, educational and economic harms — both to the students they serve and the communities around them. Students of color in segregated schools tend to have diminished academic achievement, lower graduation and college attendance rates and reduced economic prosperity later in life. Students of all groups in segregated schools have a harder time learning to work and socialize across racial lines. 

Recent research has shown that segregated schools can also drag down entire neighborhoods. It’s practically a truism that when a family is shopping for a house, the first thing they ask about is the schools. And because race and income are closely linked in America, segregated schools tend to concentrate economic disadvantage, driving more affluent residents – white and nonwhite alike — to flee the area for some place with better-resourced educational institutions. The result is collapsing home values and a poorer community.

With the costs of segregation firmly established, it’s alarming that resegregation is now affecting tens of thousands of students of color in our region. In 2019, the Twin Cities had 44,000 students attending intensely segregated schools in which less than 1 in 10 students are white, and an additional 78,000 students in moderately segregated schools where students of color make up more three-fifths of enrollment. This represents an inversion of the overall demography of Twin Cities students, where about three-fifths of students are white. 

What’s more, this is not some long-standing historic arrangement, but a problem that has mostly arisen since the turn of the millennium. In a mere two decades, the number of intensely segregated school sites in the Twin Cities has grown almost five-fold, from 21 to over 100. In the same span, the region has produced dozens of schools with virtually no white students at all. Uniformly segregated schools were once almost totally unknown in Minnesota. They create a degree of total racial isolation that does not exist in any Twin Cities neighborhood, and is more reminiscent of the Jim Crow South than Minnesota’s communities. 

Segregation has spread to a larger variety of schools within the region, too. Twenty years ago, nonwhite school segregation was contained almost entirely within the Minneapolis and Saint Paul school districts, which were home to 85 percent of the region’s schools that enrolled a disproportionate share of students of color. 

But in the 21st century, school segregation has surged in the suburbs. Today, there are more segregated schools in the suburbs than in the two central city districts combined. 

Charter schools have also played a major role in creating racially divided education. Charters — invented in Minnesota in the mid-90s — barely existed two decades ago. But last year, Twin Cities were home to 70 segregated charters — about a third of the total number of the region’s segregated schools. Moreover, charter schools tend to have the most intense segregation of any type. Of the region’s 50 most highly segregated schools, 45 are charters.

These trends have complex causes. Growing racial diversity plays a role, but racial diversity is growing in every region around the United States, many of which have not seen similar changes. For example, between 2000 and 2018, the number of intensely segregated schools in the Twin Cities grew by nearly 80. In Seattle, a larger region with slightly more racially diverse student demographics, the number of intensely segregated schools rose from 14 to 35. In Raleigh, North Carolina, a diverse city with a history of Jim Crow segregation, the number of intensely segregated schools rose from 19 to 35. In Portland, Oregon, the number rose from zero — all the way to 2.

Why has Minneapolis taken such a different trajectory from some of its peer cities? The answer, in a phrase, is “public policy.” Other regions have adopted far-reaching rules and policies that proactively attempt to push back against segregation. These have taken many creative forms, often incorporating elements of school choice and heavy support for low-income schools, but they’ve all attempted to address the root issue of segregation directly. 

Minnesota, by contrast, has made a series of poor political and legislative decisions that have undermined integration and intensified racial isolation in schools. Starting in the 1970s, Minnesota also had a robust school integration rule, comparable or stronger to many other states. But it chopped that rule down under political pressure, stripping out integration requirements and replacing them with weaker measures. Charter schools were exempted entirely. This process happened in 1999, immediately before segregation exploded in the Twin Cities. 

The rest, as they say, is history. The question now is whether the state will ever look at two decades of failure, and revisit those decisions.