These proposals would target racial achievement gulfs in Minnesota

Published 10:14 am Thursday, April 7, 2016

By Christopher Magan

Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

There’s a growing insistence at the Capitol that lawmakers should move more quickly to address Minnesota’s racial disparities.

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The gulf between the academic and economic achievements of Minnesotans of color and white residents was one of three topics that nearly pushed the Legislature into special session this past winter.

While the other two issues — unemployment benefits for Iron Range workers and the need to comply with federal Real ID requirements — progressed quickly this session, little has been done to address racial disparities.

“We think this is as important as any of those issues and demands the same attention,” Anthony Newby, executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said Wednesday.

Newby led a coalition of community groups that unveiled a United Black Legislative Agenda at the Capitol. The coalition urged lawmakers to pass legislation in the coming weeks that will help improve the economic situations of minority residents and reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

The group’s priorities include $75 million in new funding to help black-owned businesses, summer jobs programs for young people of color, and support for working families. They hope to ban private prisons, restore voting rights to felons who served their time and establish a policy to use body cameras for police oversight.

Minnesota’s racial disparities were thrust to the attention of the Legislature last year when data released by the U.S. Census showed black Minnesotans’ household income declined 14 percent between 2013 and 2014.

“That was a wake-up call for all of us, African-Americans and the broader community as well,” said Jeff Hassan, of the African American Leadership Forum.

In November, Minneapolis police officers’ shooting of Jamar Clark led to widespread protests and demands for changes to the state’s criminal justice systems.

The ideas black community leaders detailed Wednesday are not the first proposals at the Capitol to address economic and academic gaps.

State teachers union Education Minnesota was joined by faith and community groups Tuesday in a push to focus much of the state’s $900 million budget surplus on programs for children. The Minnesota Coalition for Education Equity backs bills to expand preschool access, improve support services for students and increase recruitment of teachers of color.

Educators believe that better access to quality early-learning programs, expanded support services for students and a more diverse teaching force are essential tools to close the state’s achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers.

Last month, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed $100 million in new spending in his supplemental budget to begin to address racial disparities. Dayton said his ideas were merely a starting point that lawmakers and community groups should improve upon.

Dayton said he was grateful new proposals were coming from community groups because state agencies alone cannot close racial gaps. “It is everybody’s problem, it is everybody’s challenge,” Dayton said.

But the Republican-led House and DFL-controlled Senate have struggled to agree on proposals.

DFL lawmakers have complained that their bills to help minorities, women of color and new immigrants have gone nowhere in the House. In turn, Republicans argue that their ideas to close the achievement gap, such as expanding school choice and other education reforms, have been similarly ignored.

Whatever flexibility exists on either side of the aisle should be more clear when party leaders detail supplemental budget proposals later this month.

Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said Democrats will have to compromise to get new spending approved.

“As I have said many times, if Democrats are willing to seriously address the achievement gap, I will be flexible in considering their spending proposals,” Knoblach said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report.

—Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.