Opinion

Viewpoint: Professor Responds to Article About Minnesota School Integration and Charter Autonomy

By Myron Orfield | January 11, 2016

This essay was submitted in response to the article “How Minnesota’s Push to Integrate Schools Sparked a War Against Charters Serving Minority Families.” The Seventy Four welcome letters to the editor at info@the74million.org.
Although purporting to be a discussion of the tension between the civil rights obligation to provide integrated education and the desire of many charter operators to provide single-race “culturally targeted” enclaves, The Seventy Four’s recent dispatch from Minnesota quickly devolves into a wide-ranging attack on integrationists across the Twin Cities. In particular, the article singles out me and the work by my Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity for targeted criticism.
Unfortunately, the article provides a lopsided and incomplete account, characterizing me as a lonely voice, consistently sidelined by strong popular support for the exemption of segregated “culturally targeted” charters from civil rights rules.
At the outset, I should note that my interpretation of the legal and policy evidence — that integration remedies must be wide-ranging and applied to charter schools — has received support from none other than former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In a “Dear Colleague” letter dated May 14, 2014, Duncan issued legal guidance informing states that charter schools must be included in court-mandated or state-administered desegregation plans. Indeed, most states already do so: Minnesota is the only state that explicitly exempts charters from its civil rights law.
The article also misrepresents my role in the development of Minnesota’s new school integration rule. The battle over the integration rule has been closely fought, and state government bodies, when presented with adequate evidence on school integration, have frequently sided against charter proponents in favor of a broadly inclusive integration rule. The January 4 feature ignores this, instead briefly noting that I filed a dissenting opinion as part of the Minnesota Integration Rule Alignment Work Group in 2014. But this was only because that group ignored the recommendations of the earlier and more in-depth Integration and Revenue Task Force, of which I was also a part. The Task Force, which was composed of an ideologically diverse group, including liberals, Republicans, and charter supporters, nearly unanimously recommended a series of improvements to the state rule. The state has failed to adopt many of these recommendations, triggering my dissent.
Ironically, however, the state did adopt a key recommendation that the article characterizes as a “sweeping change”: its new proposed integration rule removes a clause stating that segregation cannot occur as a result of student or parental choice.
The Seventy Four suggests, without providing firm evidence, that the a petition from the city of Brooklyn Center to broaden the Minnesota desegregation rule was withdrawn because of political pressure from charters. This is simply false. The petition was withdrawn because proceeding would likely have generated upwards of $25,000 in court costs, a steep price when the state was already in the process of revising its integration rule.
Indeed, I do support school choice — when choice is provided in a way that does not undermine civil rights remedies or facilitate white flight and racial isolation. For instance, when I served in the Minnesota legislature, I was instrumental in passing legislation to support the state’s “The Choice Is Yours” program, which provides a choice for disadvantaged urban students to attend integrated, higher-performing schools, and provides transportation facilitating that choice. When charter enabling legislation was first proposed in 1991, I supported versions that contained adequate civil rights protections. The final version, however, did not, and I voted against it.
More broadly, The Seventy Four’s article skews the narrative by almost entirely relying on criticism of our academic work from groups and individuals with an ideological bent, and omitting the significant support it has received from other quarters.
Citing education reform organizations on our charter school reports is akin to citing oil companies on climate scientists. It is neither surprising nor especially revealing that charters and their supporters have rallied against our research, because our research has repeatedly and consistently demonstrated that charters suffer from severe segregation and, in the aggregate, produce unremarkable achievement.
Without belaboring the point, the article makes the following omissions in surveying my academic record:
  • While the Illinois Network of Charter Schools did claim to find errors in our report on Chicago charters, we easily refuted its attacks in a rebuttal document that is available on our site. The Chicago study has been submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal; it uses the same statistical techniques as earlier studies of ours that have passed peer review.
  • The article criticizes that same report for being funded in part by several teacher unions. This information is readily available on the first page of the report. In addition, the piece omits the fact that the remainder of the funding was provided by the Ford and McKnight Foundation, both of which provide significant funding to charter schools.
  • “Two other Twin Cities scholars” did attempt to rebut my William Mitchell Law Review article analyzing the flaws in Minnesota’s current choice-based integration scheme, but the article never mentions that one of those scholars was the primary drafter of the scheme in question. Nor does it include a link to rebuttals to that response.
  • My Institute did publish a research report on housing development that attracted sharp criticism from the housing development groups it criticized, including another University of Minnesota faculty member who works in community development. But the Seventy Four article does not mention that same article was publicly defended by the nation’s leading social scientists on metropolitan issues and the nation’s most prominent fair housing legal scholars. It was subsequently published in a well-regarded peer-reviewed journal, and when our critic published his rebuttal, he retracted any statement about our work’s “worthiness.”
Moreover, the criticism of our work on schools in the piece can be easily traced back to dedicated education reform entities or individuals, rather than academics or impartial third parties. These include the Illinois Network of Charter Schools; Bill Wilson, who operates a charter school in Minnesota; and MinnCAN, the local chapter of a dedicated national education reform advocacy organization (which shares its offices with Charter School Partners, a self-styled charter research organization that has also criticized us repeatedly). And as the article notes, the William Mitchell law review article was coauthored by an in-house attorney at a charter school.
In short, the recent Seventy Four feature is parroting familiar lines of attack that charter school proponents have been making against integrationists broadly, and my work in particular, for many years. But a fuller accounting of the facts suggests that these attacks are most often driven by a political urge to come to the defense of education reform, rather than any serious concern with the quality of my research.
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