Our view: Open-enrollment trends are troubling
Very few parents, when asked, will say racial demographics played a role in their decision to leave one school district in favor of another. A study released last week, however, reveals Minnesota's open enrollment law appears to be enabling an explosion of "white flight" from urban school districts in Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Cloud.
The study by the University of Minnesota Law School's Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity examined open enrollment data from 2000 to 2010 and found, during that decade, the percentage of what it called "segregative open enrollments" — white students enrolling in a school that was significantly less ethnically diverse than their previous schools — jumped from 23 percent to 36 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of "neutral" moves, in which students transferred between schools with roughly similar demographics, shrunk from 60 percent to 40 percent.
The study found especially strong evidence of "white flight" in the St. Cloud school district, which experienced a net loss of nearly 1,200 students to open enrollment in 2009-10. Ninety-two percent of those students were white (in a district that is 76 percent white), and they left St. Cloud for surrounding districts that the study called "overwhelmingly white" at 94 percent.
The researchers didn't address the key question of why students leave one district for another. Instead, they simply analyzed the demographic effect of open enrollment upon schools in densely populated areas where schools and communities are in close proximity to each other, thus, making it feasible for families to transport students to a different school without actually moving.
Which, of course, raises a question: Should the study have included Rochester?
In a word, yes — but Rochester beat them to the punch.
Asking tough questions
Last fall, the Rochester School District announced the results of a major study of why students leave the district for surrounding communities. The district lost 854 students to open enrollment in 2011-12, and 97 percent of them were white — despite the fact that, according to the state Department of Education, just 68 percent of students attending Rochester public schools are white. And yes, by enrolling in districts that surround Rochester, these students are entering districts that would be deemed "overwhelmingly white."
We commend the district for taking an unflinching look at this issue. The school board hired an outside firm to conduct the study, which included questions regarding the possible role of race in a family's decision to open enroll elsewhere. And, when the study found little evidence that race is a primary factorin what's happening here, some members of the Rochester School Board dared to publicly speculate parents involved in the survey might have given politically correct answers, rather than the truth.
This isn't to say there aren't legitimate reasons for families to consider open enrollment. The idea of smaller classes sizes, lower student-to-teacher ratios and generally smaller schools is attractive to many families (although class sizes in districts surrounding Rochester aren't necessarily smaller). Some parents admit they're lured in by technology programs that put laptops or iPads in the hands of every student. (Rochester is in the process of trying to even the playing field in that area.) All-day, every-day kindergarten programs definitely lure some students out of Rochester, but by the end of the current legislative session, it's entirely possible the state will commit to paying the full price of all-day kindergarten for any districts that choose to offer it.
And of course, there's the possibility that a high school athlete who might not be good enough to play basketball or football for one of Rochester's "big three" might very well make the starting lineup at a smaller school — giving him or her more incentive to work hard and remain academically eligible.
Ironically,one of the motivations for the creation of Minnesota's open enrollment law 25 years ago was a desire to increase educational opportunities for minority students who previously were "stuck" in under-performing inner-city schools. Such transfers still happen today, but open enrollment can be a logistical and financial impossibility for low-income families who can't afford to transport their kids to and from a school that might be 10 miles from their home.
The task ahead
So what happens next? If you accept the premise that a culturally diverse classroom presents far more opportunities than problems — and we certainly do — then the course of action for the Rochester School Board, administrators and teachers is clear.
Simply put, Rochester's schools need to constantly adapt, to strive for excellence in both its staffing and technology, and then hope parents make enrollment decisions that are based on their child's educational needs match up — or don't match up — with what's offered in Rochester.
The district already is responding. For example, the variety of Advanced Placement and Post-Secondary Enrollment Option classes available to Rochester's college-bound high school students is mind-boggling. Vocational education is making a comeback in the district's middle schools. Robotics is about to become an actual class, not just a popular club activity. The elementary science curriculum, with the help of Mayo Clinic and the zebrafish program, is getting national attention. Online course offerings are expanding every year.
But more needs to be done. For example, the popularity of the district's four "choice" schools, each of which has far more applicants than availableslots, points to the need for another, similar school. The district also should also do more to promote itself: If class sizes and staffing levels are comparable to what one would find in Byron, Stewartville or Dover-Eyota, then people need to know that.
Ultimately, no matter how good a school system might be, a certain number of families will always leave a large district for a smaller one, just as some families will choose to home-school or pay for private school. Parents must decide what is best for their children, and if they live in Rochester, they're fortunate to have many good options within a relatively small geographical area.
We do, however, urge the Rochester School Board to stay diligent, to keep asking the tough questions about how and why open enrollment is changing the racial balance of our schools — and more importantly, what the district must do to keep offering a world-class education to the students and families who choose to stay here.