In Minn., Criticism May Quash Board's Diversity-Rule Proposal

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The Minnesota board of education's proposed new "diversity rule," which would require districts to draw up plans to reduce educational disparities between racial and ethnic groups, has provoked a backlash that may doom its chances for passage.

The criticism of the proposed policy has been so heated that state officials arranged for increased security at the public hearings held last month on the plan.

The proposed rule would replace a 1988 policy that requires school districts to address race, gender, and disability in their curricula. The new rule would go further, requiring them to form advisory committees, collect data, and propose plans for reducing "any measurable disparity" in student performance. ("Minn. Board Gives Tentative Nod to Rule Targeting 'Diversity' Gaps," Sept. 24, 1997.)

The draft policy focuses on gaps in student performance, attendance and absenteeism, graduation and dropout rates, suspensions and expulsions, and participation in course offerings and extracurricular activities.

The school boards in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the two urban districts that educate the majority of the state's nonwhite children, are both opposed to the proposed rule, fearing it would create an expensive administrative burden without helping students.

And Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican who appoints the nine-member state school board, sent a letter last month to its president asking that she stop the rule-making process in its tracks.

The proposed rule would divide Minnesota children by race, sex, and disability, create "an administrative nightmare" for school districts, and invite harmful and expensive litigation, the governor asserted in his Nov. 14 letter.

Mr. Carlson urged the board to vote down the proposed rule and threatened that if it did not, he would "propose a legislative remedy in the next legislative session."

Too Much 'Process'

Other Minnesotans have attacked the proposed rule change for its emphasis on cultural diversity as a part of a student's education. Some parents, for example, have blasted it as another example of politically correct subject matter detracting from schools' academic focus.

But the heads of the Twin Cities districts said they applaud the proposed rule's good intentions even if they don't believe it would have much of an impact on students.

"We agree with what the state is trying to do," said Bill Green, the president of the Minneapolis school board, "but the rule, as written, is mainly process."

The rule doesn't address the state's role in creating the conditions--such as unequal housing patterns--that have concentrated disproportionate numbers of poor children with special needs in the Twin Cities metro area, Mr. Green complained.

In St. Paul, the district already is addressing many of the issues raised in the proposed rule through teacher training, Mary Thornton Phillips, the president of the local school board, said.

"We support diversity, but how is this going to advance the achievement of all students?" she said. "We determined it's nothing of substance--only a lot of bureaucrats."

But some civil rights and advocacy groups testified in support of the proposal in hearings before an administrative-law judge. The judge, who is required to sign off on the changes before the rule can become law, has three months to rule.

Divided Board

The state board split 5-4 over the proposal last fall, when it was approved for public comment as part of the rule-making process.

Dolores Fridge, the president of the board, said she will call for a vote next week on the issue. Board members may decide to kill their proposal, change it, start over, or await the decision of the administrative-law judge, she said.

Ms. Fridge, who is the state commissioner of human rights, said the proposed rule "doesn't make sense" and won't accomplish its goals.

"The public's response has been overwhelmingly negative," she said. "People are already looking for a way around it."

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