Wednesday, November 23, 2005

COLUMN --- State government rewards failure

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:35 AM |  

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

You won't hear it in a legislative discussion of School District Integration Revenue, the state program providing funds to school districts to promote racial integration. It's not in any news article or press release. But tucked away in the recently released Office of the Legislative Auditor's evaluation of Integration Revenue is the dirty little secret — the reason government programs that never succeed also never "fail."

"The integration revenue funding formula contains a financial disincentive to fully integrate schools or districts," states the auditor's report. "If districts successfully integrate, they will no longer receive integration revenue. … If a district … achieves racial balance among its schools, the district would no longer be eligible for integration revenue."

Here's the universal lesson we should draw from the specific "nonsuccesses" of integration revenue: Government programs reward failure, not success. They discourage eliminating problems in favor of managing problems. Failure is a major reason to keep the money flowing.

While the auditor finds no evidence to suggest that districts are intentionally maintaining racial inequalities, it also notes that racial concentration has increased in many school districts that receive integration revenue.

Of 22 racially identifiable schools that were first identified in 2000 and still existed in 2005, all but four had a higher concentration of minority students in 2005 than 2000. Government has dished out millions of integration revenue dollars since 2000 — $79 million to just 80 school districts in 2005 alone.

However, there's no reason to suspect conspiracy as cause for "nonsuccess" when incompetence is so evident. After reading the detailed auditor's report, poor results come as no surprise.

"The program's vague guidelines … make it difficult to measure the impact of the integration revenue program," reads the auditor's evaluation. "Minnesota laws governing the program do not require school districts to achieve specific integration outcomes or use measurable criteria when assessing their integration programs. … School districts are not required to use their integration revenue to integrate their students and alleviate the racial imbalance."

The officially vague criterion that justifies funding requires only that a district "create or enhance learning opportunities which are designed to provide opportunities for students to have increased interracial contacts through classroom experiences, staff initiatives and other educationally related programs."

In fairness, an argument might be made that integration revenue funds not directly applied to racial integration have been used for other educational purposes. However, that lame rationale reduces integration money, like the recently passed and equally ill-defined "Alternative Teacher Professional Pay System" (Q-Comp), to simply pumping money into an unaccountable public education system by fooling taxpayers into thinking the funds are going to a noble purpose, to an immediate "crisis."

And who's responsible for monitoring the integration revenue for taxpayers?

"The Minnesota Department of Education has not met its obligations to oversee the integration revenue program," the OLA report says. "While the department has recently increased its oversight of districts' integration budgets, it is still not meeting all of its responsibilities."

Let's see: We have a government program with vague and undefined objectives that is not achieving positive results about which for the past five years no government agency seems concerned. The program is bleeding millions of dollars a year. So what's the solution? Let's fix it with more government. By the way, we're not talking a tweak here and there. The very thorough auditor's report makes a long list of recommendations that amount to nothing short of a Mulligan, a costly do-over of the program.

That brings us back to the universal lesson: Government-run education is neither equipped nor the proper entity to solve racial issues. In fact, government funding contingent on racial disparity gives school districts incentive to simply manage intangible racial issues, not to solve actual problems. The achievement gap leaps to mind.

Let's admit the integration revenue program has failed. Let's take the $79 million, most of which flows to St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth, and use it in those cities to fund education vouchers for low-income families to use at schools of their choosing. Measure success using test scores and parents' satisfaction. Let's really try to eliminate the achievement gap, not just mange it. Let's be honest. Let's be smart.

Category: Column, Education, School Choice, Local Politics