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Critics Assailing Minnesota Choice Plan

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St. Paul--Only weeks after going into effect this fall, Minnesota's "open enrollment" plan, which allows 11th- and 12th-grade students to take college courses with tuition paid by per-pupil state foundation aid, has come under sharp attack on economic and constitutional grounds.

The Minnesota Federation of Teachers is expected to file suit this month in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the law--called the "Postsecondary Enrollment Options Act"--because it permits state payments to church-related colleges.

Several other organizations, including the Minnesota Education Association, may file friend-of-the-court briefs. And local educators are also charging that the options plan could seriously undermine6their high-school programming.

To address the "challenges" created by the program, Commissioner of Education Ruth E. Randall appointed a 30-member evaluation committee this month and announced plans to hold regional workshops throughout the state.

The program, approved by lawmakers this past summer, is a scaled-down version of Gov. Rudy Perpich's public-school choice plan. It permits the state's 100,000 11th and 12th graders, who are enrolled in 557 public high schools in 434 districts, to attend any postsecondary institution--including private colleges--that will admit them.

Students receive academic credits at both secondary and postsecondary levels and may attend college classes on a part-time or full-time basis. Some 1,500 students have enrolled in the program to date, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association.

Minnesota permitted high-school students to take college courses before the options act took effect. But under the earlier plan, high schools could veto a student's proposal to do so. Under the current law, high schools have no control over who can participate.

Economic Impact

Critics charge that the options program offers a "free ride" to students who have chosen to take part in the program in order to accumulate college credits rather than to enhance their educational experience, as the program was intended to do.

They also charge that the program is discriminatory because participation is limited to those students who are within commuting distance of a postsecondary institution. And they say the open-enrollment option has created scheduling problems for high schools.

But perhaps the most frequently voiced complaint about the program concerns its potential economic impact on school districts. Critics charge that local districts stand to lose thousands of dollars in state aid when the foundation-aid funds allocated to 11th and 12th graders follow program participants to higher-education institutions.

At Brainerd Senior High School, a 1,320-student school with 850 11th and 12th graders, for example, the 65 students who cross the street to attend a local community college will cost the school up to $100,000, according to Principal James Hunt.

Pat Churchill, executive director of the mea, an affiliate of the National Education Association, found in a survey of 172 districts that districts with students taking part in the program could be forced to com-bine classes and reduce the number of course offerings because of the financial drain.

Still other critics charge that declining enrollments at the high-school level could force districts to lay off teachers. Citing the threat of layoffs, Robert Meeks, associate legislative director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, called the program "the most devastating piece of legislation in the past 20 or 30 years."

But finance experts in the state education department discount these dire economic forecasts. They note that while per-student foundation aid averages $3,000 a year, the "portable" tuition cost charged by most postsecondary institutions is often less than that and high schools retain the balance.

At a community college, for example, the per-credit cost is $36. And while all the 17 high-tuition private colleges in the Minnesota Private College Council have accepted high-school students under the program, most are reported to limit the secondary students to one or two courses.

Better Counseling

At a news conference announcing the establishment of a panel to study the program, Ms. Randall called for better counseling for students who are interested in taking part in the option program and more study of the participants' motivation.

But Wendell O. Erickson, chairman of the House Education Committee and an early supporter of the program, said the law needs more study. He predicted that the legislature would address the program's problems when it meets next February.

"We looked at it as kind of an enrichment program, but economic considerations seem to rank above the academic," said Mr. Erickson. He said he regretted that the state was not given more time to prepare for the start-up of the program.

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