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Minnesota is an education leader on racial inequality

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Minnesota ranks second among the 50 states in racial equity in education, according to the latest WalletHub survey. Minnesota loses only to its rival Wisconsin, which ranks first in racial inequality.

Minnesota has struggled with race on many dimensions that are well documented. It ranks among the worst states in the country for racial disparities in criminal justice, health care and health care outcomes, and employment, wealth and income. Cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul also have a legacy of racial covenants and zoning regulations that have led to residential segregation that continues to this day. Reports also place Minnesota among the worst states in the country when it comes to economic mobility and stagnation, including for people of color.

But one of the most striking inequalities is education. In the 1990s, when I was working at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty, we also documented how Minnesota and especially Minneapolis were among the worst areas in the country when it came to residential segregation and educational outcomes.

At the time, the city of Minneapolis was in the midst of legal challenges over segregation in its schools, and the state was also heavily criticized for its racial inequality when it came to education. Ostensibly, many of the reforms adopted in Minnesota were aimed at addressing these racial disparities. These include open enrollment, magnet schools, charter schools, and enabling more choice for parents. In theory, they were all intended to address the problems of educational inequality. However, you can also interpret these reforms in another way: they were not intended to address the problems of racial inequality, but simply to avoid having to make the difficult choices necessary to truly address them.

So when we look at the WalletHub report, we see that Minnesota ranks 49th out of 50 states in terms of overall racial equity (with a rank of 1 indicating the most equality). It ranks 50th in the gap between white and black adults with at least a high school diploma, 42nd in the percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree, 49th in the number of high school graduates, Ranked 38th in the gap in standardized test scores, 38th in the gap in average SAT scores, and 34th in the gap in average ACT scores. If you are white and perhaps wealthy, Minnesota schools are doing well. But if you are a person of color, the schools are largely failing you.

Minnesota has known about these problems for a quarter century, if not longer. There are no serious suggestions or policies to address this problem. Some have advocated for a constitutional amendment simply to change the way education is funded or to give individuals the state’s constitutional right to sue for inequality. There is little evidence that such approaches would work.

Conversely, teachers deserve to be paid more, but increasing their pay or changing workloads won’t eliminate the racial equity gap either. The problem is much deeper. It is anchored in the state’s legacy of racial compacts and segregation. It is anchored in the fact that for years people of color represented such a small percentage of the population that they were powerless and voiceless in formulating public policy. It is entrenched because of the fragmented nature of our school boundaries and jurisdictions in Minnesota, and it is entrenched simply because ultimately there is neither the will nor the desire to truly address these fundamental inequities.

Seventy years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declared educational segregation and the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. That decision brought promise and hope for equality in education. But seventy years later, that promise still hasn’t come to Minnesota. As a leader in education, racial inequality is nothing to be proud of. But that’s the distinction that Minnesota still suffers from.

David Schultz is the Winston Folkers Endowed Distinguished Faculty Chair at Hamline University.