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Minnesota Legislature To Consider Two Education-Voucher Bills

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Two bills providing for educational vouchers on a limited scale, including one that would restrict such benefits to the children of low-income families, are scheduled for hearings this fall in the Minnesota legislature.

Several voucher plans have been introduced and have died in the Minnesota legislature over the past decade. But observers in St. Paul believe two recent developments may create a favorable climate for the concept: the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the state's 25-year-old system of income-tax deductions for expenses incurred by families with children in private and public schools, and the endorsement of a generalized voucher plan by the Citizens' League, an influential statewide civic organization.

The two Minnesota bills differ substantially in their scope and emphasis. One, sponsored by Representative Tom Osthoff of St. Paul, would establish "demonstration grant programs" for two academic years in up to six school districts. To be developed, administered, and evaluated by the participating local school boards, the plan would make available to every elementary-school-age pupil in the district a portable grant (for an amount unspecified in the bill) to be redeemed at an eligible public or private school. Participating schools would be required to meet all state standards for instruction, health and safety, and nondiscrimination, and to provide parents with information about their course of study and staff qualifications.

Pilot Program Evaluations

Under the Osthoff measure, which is similar to a 1977 bill that died in committee, participating districts, at the end of the 1985-86 school year, would forward evaluations of the pilot program to the state department of education.

The second bill, introduced by Representative John Brandl of Minneapolis, would provide, from the state treasury, the equivalent of state foundation aid--ranging from $1,000 to $2,800 per pupil, depending on grade level and other characteristics--to be applied toward tuition and fees at an eligible public or nonpublic school of the student's choice. (See Education Week, March 9, 1983.)

The vouchers would be available only to students from families whose incomes do not exceed 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

The state grants, Mr. Brandl said, would cover tuition costs at most parochial schools, but would defray only a fraction of the expense of attending the most expensive independent schools. Nonetheless, participating schools would not be permitted to charge any further tuition; if costs exceeded the amount of the state grant, the school would be expected to absorb them. One reason for that, Mr. Brandl said, is to ensure that churches maintain their subsidies to religious schools.

One of the most controversial provisions of the Brandl bill would require many private schools to change their selective admission policies, in effect accepting students by lot if applications exceeded available spaces.

"We bent over backwards in the bill not to allow the skimming off of the easily taught, white, middle-class kids," Representative Brandl said. "Although there's been some support for that among private-school people, there's also some opposition." The Osthoff bill, while it does require participating schools to comply with state and federal anti-discrimination laws, does not require any further alteration of admissions policies.

Mr. Brandl, who said his primary aim was to extend to low-income families the educational choices available to those who are economically better off, acknowledged that a large group of families would neither be eligible for his vouchers nor wealthy enough to take advantage of the state income-tax deduction.

"There is a group in the middle, and I'm hearing from them," he said. "I got a letter from one guy, a constituent of mine, who was livid. He has a child with a learning disability, and the parents feel the public school isn't helping. They've found a private school and they're trying to figure out a way to pay for it. Then he picked up the paper and found that if Brandl had his way, poor people would have that choice, but his family wouldn't be eligible.

"I hear the argument of people who favor broadening it, but I am so determined to protect the public schools from skimming-off of the best students that I would not support a tremendous broadening of the tax deduction or a generalized voucher. It would be politically unfeasible and tough to implement. Maybe if we implemented the vouchers for poor kids and saw how it worked for a few years, we could consider it."

Other interest groups, including the state's major teachers' organizations, are less than enthusiastic about the proposal, he said. "There are, of course, various people who are kind of uncomfortable about the whole thing. But on the other hand, there's much more educational experimentation in the air."

Because the 1984 legislative session in Minnesota will be a short one with a limited number of topics, Mr. Brandl said he does not expect his or any other voucher bill to reach the floor until the 1985 session, when lawmakers are considering taxes and the biennial budget.

Mark Mallander, an aide to the house education committee, agreed that the proposals may not see action for several months, but added that the concept "is being taken more seriously now than before."

"We've had similar bills considered by the legislature in the past 10 years, and only one made it to the floor, about eight years ago," Mr. Mallander said. "They're taking a better approach to the whole thing now. I think it has a better chance than the other bills we've seen."

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