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Minnesota Governor's Voucher Bill Disregards Suggested Changes

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Gov. Rudy Perpich of Minnesota last week sent to the state legislature a version of his public-school voucher plan that disregards many of the recommendations of a task force established by the commissioner of education to analyze the proposal.

The Governor's $21.8-million "Access to Excellence" bill, which was to be introduced in the legislature late last week, would allow 11th- and 12th-grade students to choose which high school to attend--without regard to district lines--by 1986-87, and would extend that option to all public-school students in the state by 1988-89.

The Governor's bill, which calls for a student's state aid to follow him or her to the nonresident district, would also allow high-school students to take courses at public postsecondary institutions.

A 21-member Task Force on Public School Open Enrollment appointed by Commissioner of Education Ruth E. Randall had recommended instead that students be allowed to transfer to another school district only if the nonresident district offered a class or program that was not offered in the student's resident district.

Moreover, because of the policy problems associated with sending money earmarked for elementary and secondary education to colleges and universities, the panel rejected the idea of permitting high-school students to attend higher-education institutions.

"The reasoning behind [our proposal] was that education funding is very short to start with," said Merton Johnson, chairman of the panel and of the Bloomington, Minn., school board. "If we were to spend additional dollars to take students from one program to another when the program is already offered [in the student's resident district], that would be fiscally irresponsible."

Funds for the bill, if approved, would come from reshuffling money already included in the Governor's budget.

Refining Issues

The proposal, the first of its kind in Minnesota to receive such strong gubernatorial backing, was announced by Governor Perpich in January. (See Education Week, Jan. 17, 1985.) The task force appointed to study the proposal was charged with analyzing such issues as transportation, desegregation, extracurricular activities, school-selection procedures, and geographic limits.

Mr. Johnson maintained that the panel's report "doesn't deviate from the Governor's proposal," but refines it within set fiscal limits.

But Laura Zahn, executive aide to Commissioner Randall, noted that "the task force's report is different ... from what the Governor intended." She added, however, that the panel "did affirm the Governor's decision of having choice. It's just a matter of how they would implement it. They tried to keep it as open as was workable."

Governor's Commitment

Thomas A. Nelson, chairman of the state Senate's education-aid committee, is the chief Senate sponsor of the Governor's bill, which also includes funds for staff development, testing of learner outcomes, an instructional-effectiveness program, and a management-assistance project. A number of bills similar to the Governor's, but with various modifications, will probably be introduced by other lawmakers, an aide to the Governor said.

Senator Nelson said last week that the Governor's commitment to the free-choice concept will help the bill's chances for legislative approval. "From my nine years of experience, if a Governor commits strongly to something and carries that commitment through, it gives it an edge in the legislative process. And my sense is that [Governor Perpich] is committed."

Legislators and educators agree that the bill will be the subject of several hearings and considerable discussion in the legislature. The lawmakers have until May 21 to act on it, but Senator Nelson said he expects "this will either pass or fail by mid-April."

Excellence in Education

The purpose of the "Access to Excellence" bill, according to its preamble, is to "give parents and students increased opportunity to find excellence in education while giving local school officials increased opportunity to offer excellence in instruction to students."

Under the terms of the bill, a student's parent or guardian would apply to a nonresident district--by Dec. 1 of each year for the next school year--to participate in the "curricular offerings" of that district. A student would be able to participate in extracurricular or cocurricular activities as determined by the Minnesota State High School League, which governs such activities.

Parents would be notified of their child's acceptance by a nonresident district by Feb. 1 and would have 10 days to notify the district of their intent to accept.

Desegregation Rules

A district would not be required to accept students under the proposal, but once it indicated a willingness to admit nonresidents, it would be able to deny an application only on the grounds of lack of space or because acceptance of the application would "put the district out of compliance with a desegregation plan that complies with state-board rules."

If the transfers in and out of such a district would make it noncompliant with desegregation rules, the district would be required to limit the number of majority- and minority-group students who could transfer in or out.

The selection of pupils to transfer in or out of that district, under the bill, would be made by the district "based on equitable criteria developed by the school board, or ... by lot."

Transportation

A participating district would provide transportation within its boundaries for resident and nonresident pupils, with the state supplying transportation aid for nonresidents.

Parents of pupils choosing to attend schools in other districts could apply to their home district for reimbursement for transporting students to the district border. The state board, in turn, would determine how to pay districts for reimbursing the parents. The one-way mileage limit for reimbursement would be 30 miles.

Postsecondary Institutions

The Governor's bill would allow a parent to apply to send a child to a public postsecondary institution. The foundation aid that goes to the district for the pupil, under the program, would be paid to the postsecondary institution under a set formula that takes into account the time the student spent on campus.

Parents of students attending a postsecondary institution would ask their home school district for transportation reimbursement. The state board would be responsible for establishing a means-based formula for the payments.

The Governor rejected a task-force recommendation to establish a special state fund to ease the financial impact on districts that lose state aid because of student transfers.

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