Open enrollment caused Twin Cities school districts to become more segregated than integrated in the decade following 2000, a new study found.
Parents use open enrollment to have their children attend the best school districts, which are usually predominately white, have the most tax base and resources, and have lower poverty levels, said study co-author Myron Orfield, director of the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School.
Students who participate in open enrollment are more wealthy because they need a car to provide their own transportation to and from school, Orfield said.
Of the open enrollment moves made in the 69 metro-area school districts from 2000 to 2010, segregative moves increased from 23 percent to 36 percent while integrative moves had a smaller increase from 16 percent to 24 percent, according to the report released on Jan. 11. The rest of the moves between school districts were categorized as “race neutral.”
Some, like the Wayzata School District, lose the same racial balance of students as it receives. Others, like the Minnetonka School District, are destinations of “white flight,” which then increases the racial diversity of the school districts the students are leaving. The busing program The Choice Is Yours also affects the racial diversity in the nine participating school districts.
Hopkins Superintendent John Schultz said the only way to know why parents choose open enrollment is to survey them because each child is different. In Minnesota, the policy is that parents have the choice for their child’s school, he said.
Michael Schwartz, Richfield School District business manager, said although white flight could play a role for some parents, there’s a variety of reasons why parents choose to open enroll.
“Sometimes families are looking for a better fit,” he said.
Families also have more options that would cause a family to open enroll into a specific school district as districts add charter schools, language immersion schools, and specialized schools that focus on science, technology and math, he said.
“There are choices out there for parents. …And I think districts have been moving this way over a number of years looking at their programs they offer as a marketing tool,” he said.
The open enrollment application doesn’t ask for a student’s race. Edina Superintendent Ric Dressen points out that school district administrations don’t have any control over the race of the students attending the district through open enrollment. It’s purely a system of placing students who have filled out the paperwork correctly into districts through a lottery system, he said.
Orfield and co-author Thomas Luce Jr. suggest the solution is more monitoring of open enrollment and more cooperation between districts to balance out the racial disparities between them.
“Open enrollment is made to level the playing field and it isn’t,” Orfield said.
“Just saying they should do this is really not gonna move the needle much,” Richfield Superintendent Robert Slotterback said. “Think about it from my perspective. I’m gonna do things to get kids to come here.”
Minnetonka Superintendent Dennis Peterson pointed out that open enrollment opens up the possibility of more competition, which has caused school districts to improve their offerings, he said.
Orfield suggests school district staff consider the racial make up of the district and recruit students to balance it. They could also begin transportation programs to help students who don’t have cars outside the district reach the schools.
“It’s not a fair system if they only recruit kids with cars,” he said.
Slotterback concluded, “I think it’s interesting the state made a great effort to get the schools integrated, then they turn around and made decisions that made the schools more segregated…and we’ve pointed that out to legislators.”
Districts which gain the most students through open enrollment are gaining them because of white flight, according to the study.
Slotterback has no doubt that white flight is occurring.
“I think that the school choice approach in Minnesota definitely contributes to resegregating the school districts. I think we have pretty compelling evidence right here in Richfield,” he said.
In Richfield, 170 students leave the district for Edina and of those, 68 percent are white, according to the study. The Edina school district is also the destination for white students living in Minneapolis and Hopkins.
The Minnetonka school district is the destination for white students living in Hopkins and Eden Prairie, according to the study.
The Wayzata school district receives a large portion of the white students in the Anoka-Hennepin, Robbinsdale and Osseo school districts. What troubles Orfield and Luce about this is that during the decade, the number of students receiving free and reduced lunches, an indicator of poverty, doubled in the three school districts.
Edina is attracting students because of its reputation and isn’t recruiting students. However, the study puts the Minnetonka school district in its crosshairs for allegedly openly recruiting white students.
“The district is known for actively recruiting students away from its more diverse neighbors… The fact that most of the students are white raises the question whether it recruits and advertises as actively in racially diverse areas of neighboring districts as in predominately white neighborhoods,” the study states.
Minnetonka Superintendent Dennis Peterson denied this allegation. The Minnetonka school district has a national reputation and families move to Minnesota for its schools, he said.
“We don’t recruit white students. We recruit students,” he said.
Orfield said the district “aggressively recruits” students from Hopkins, Wayzata and Eden Prairie, especially when those school districts are in turmoil over integration problems.
Orfield was actively helping Eden Prairie with its boundary changes, Peterson countered, adding that he felt Orfield was reacting to the concern that the boundary changes didn’t go as Orfield wanted.
Minnetonka has students open enrolling from 42 school districts and the biggest tool the district has to draw students is word of mouth from existing families, he said.
The white flight phenomena is causing some school districts like Hopkins and Richfield to become more diverse.
In Hopkins, 77 percent of the students leaving the district are white while 60 percent of the students coming into the district are white, according to the study.
Hopkins Superintendent John Schultz said it doesn’t affect what the district does because it serves the students it has.
Instead, it’s created a district that is rich in cultures and that benefits the children in the district, he said.
“Hopkins is a wonderfully diverse school district,” he said.
The Richfield School District has been in the midst of a racial transition during the decade, which was accelerated by the number of white students open enrolling out of the district. Non-white students in the district increased by 30 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Slotterback said the students leaving the district were overwhelmingly white.
“I think it was quite obvious that we had white students leaving our school district” from 1997 to 2005, he said.
The district has made changes to bring students back. They went from a net open enrollment deficit of 104 students five years ago, to a deficit of 28 last year and to a net gain of 119 students this year.
“If we’re doing our job, they’ll come back to the system,” he said.
The Choice Is Yours program also affects the race of students participating in open enrollment, which increases diversity at school districts like the Edina school district.
The program is the 2001 settlement of a lawsuit between the state of Minnesota and the NAACP. The program provides transportation to nine suburban school districts for Minneapolis students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Although the program is based on income and not color, many participants are also students of color, Edina Communications Director Susan Brott said.
The concerns about white flight into Edina are lessened by the fact that its participation in The Choice Is Yours means open enrollment actually increases the diversity of Edina’s student population, according to the study.
Nineteen percent of Edina school district’s total student population are students of color.
Participation in The Choice Is Yours program increases the number of students of color open enrolling into the district by 9 percent. The total of 33 percent of open enrollment students being students of color has remained steady for the past five years, according to Brott.
Dressen said the Edina school district has seen success and high retention of students attending through The Choice is Yours program. The district also benefits from the program because the students bring their skills to the district, he said.
Andrew Wig of Sun Newspapers contributed to this report.