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Minnesota Senate Defeats Perpich's Choice Proposal

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St Paul--Minnesota's Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee last week deleted from an omnibus education-aid bill Gov. Rudy Perpich's controversial open-enrollment plan, dealing a severe blow to the state's chances for a public-school choice plan.

The plan, which has gained widespread national attention, also garnered the "enthusiastic support" of U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who had written letters to Minnesota lawmakers urging them to approve the measure.

Governor Perpich, a Democrat, vowed to revive his open-enrollment plan, called "Access to Excellence," before the legislature recesses in late May. Under the plan, 11th and 12th graders and their parents could choose which public schools to attend without regard to district lines.

Calling the Senate committee's vote "a deep disappointment," the Governor said in a news conference last Wednesday: "I want to emphasize that this idea is not dead. I believe this is an idea that has taken root among parents and educational leaders throughout Minnesota. The plan will remain at the top of my agenda."

"If there is still an opportunity, I believe that this idea for quality education should be debated on the floor of the Senate and House and in the conference committees," the Governor continued. "If that opportunity does not arise, I want to assure Minnesotans that I will continue to champion the pursuit of excellence in our public schools and the right of parents to have free access to excellence for their children."

Jerry Nelson, a spokesman for the Governor, speculated that there is a 50-50 chance the choice plan will be introduced on the Senate or House floors as an amendment to the school-aid bill.

He added: "Realistically, it's a real long shot to succeed" if the proposal is brought to the floor.

The plan could also be revived, Mr. Nelson suggested, as an amendment to another bill, such as a tax bill that lawmakers are considering, but he said the chances of such a move were slim. It is too late to introduce the measure as a new bill, he noted.

Support for Choice

Governor Perpich's energetic backing of the voucher proposal--which is said to be unlike any school-choice plan now in existence--has won strong support from a number of quarters. The Minnesota Partnership, which represents3the elite of big business in the state, has backed the measure, as have the organized elementary and secondary principals, the state parent-teacher association, and the League of Women Voters.

Bennett's Letter

In his letter to Minnesota lawmakers, Mr. Bennett wrote: "This legislation is one of the most important features of excellence-in-education reform across the country. I want to applaud Minnesota for its leadership and convey to you and the other members of the legislature my enthusiastic support for legislation permitting parents to select from among all public schools in the state."

Mr. Bennett also offered "human and financial resources" to assist in "evaluating this program when enacted."

But Senator Tom Nelson, a recipient of the letter and the bill's chief sponsor, said that after he saw Mr. Bennett's letter, he sent word back to Washington that it would do more harm than good, at least among Democrats.

Opposition to Measure

The Governor's proposal has encountered strong opposition as well. Last month, he blamed the Minnesota Education Association and the Minnesota Federation of Teachers for sabotaging the open-enrollment plan and declared that he would neither seek nor accept their endorsement in next year's election. (See Education Week, April 17, 1985.)

As Senate lawmakers considered his choice plan late last month, the Governor had considered opting for a limited experimental plan to mollify the education establishment.

The mft had indicated it would support a limited plan. But the Governor decided to stand firm on a statewide program, even if that increased the risk of defeat. The consensus among the Governor's advisers was that a pilot program presented technical problems, such as drawing boundary lines. In addition, staff members noted, the Governor felt he had already compromised on the plan by agreeing to limit it to 11th and 12th graders instead of extending it to all grades.

The day before the crucial Senate committee vote, Governor Perpich called the leaders of the top education organizations to the Capitol in an apparent effort to soothe feelings. The meeting was, by all accounts, amicable, but the influential teachers' unions and school superintendents stood firm in their opposition to the plan.

Legislators continued to experience heavy pressure from education lobbyists, according to Senator Nelson, to oppose the choice plan. The tactical statements put out by the teachers' unions, he said, were "outrageous" and insulting."

In a related development, the Senate Finance Committee revived without funding the Governor's plan for a central high school for the arts. The Senate Education Committee had earlier knocked the arts school out of the school-aid bill. When the finance committee restored it, it did so with the provision that the issue of financing would be fought out on the Senate floor.

Assistant Editor Anne Bridgman contributed to this report.

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