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Minnesota Backs Nation's First 'Choice' System

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Minnesota will become the first state in the nation to allow parents broad discretion in their choice of school districts, under a plan approved last week in the waning hours of the state legislature's session.

The legislative package will also extend the right to a free public education to many state residents who have not earned a high-school diploma.

Under the new law, which is believed to be the first of its kind, eligible adults will be allowed to choose from a number of no-cost options to complete the requirements for their diploma.

In addition, the legislature created a carrot-and-stick mechanism to tie school attendance to the welfare benefits of young mothers.

Teen-age mothers who have dropped out and refuse to return to school face the loss of part of their welfare benefits, while those who elect to take advantage of the program will be provided with child care and transportation.

Passage of the reform package signals a major victory for Gov. Rudy Perpich, who had lobbied without success for these programs for several years.

"I'm very excited,'' Governor Perpich said in an interview last week. "These programs are going to make a dramatic difference in education in this state.'' Chester E. Finn Jr., special counselor to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, praised the open-enrollment plan as "a major move in the right direction.''

"We think it's a terrific development in a state that has shown a certain amount of gumption on this issue,'' he said. After watching Minnesota carefully, he added, many states are likely to conclude that allowing greater choice in education "is not crazy, it's not unworkable, it's legitimate.''

The reform package also added $38 million in education aid to the state's current biennial budget, including $12 million to help defray the cost of desegregation in Duluth, Minneapolis, and St. Paul.

For Governor Perpich, who is also chairman of the Education Commission of the States, winning passage of the open-enrollment plan was the sweetest victory in this legislative season.

"If nothing else passed, I would have considered it a worthwhile session,'' he said.

"For the first time ever, families can make a choice about where to send their kids to school,'' he added. "School boards will have to respond to the market forces, whereas before they didn't have to.''

The open-enrollment plan approved last week comes very close to the one first proposed by Mr. Perpich in 1985. It prohibits school boards from preventing student transfers to other districts, except in cases where the transfers would upset racial desegregation efforts.

The plan, which takes effect in 1989-90, also requires each of the state's 435 districts to develop policies governing the admission of transferring students. While districts may opt to refuse entrance to all transfer students, if they elect to participate in the plan, they must accept all those for whom space is available.

The state's per-pupil school aid will follow students to their new districts, helping to defray at least part of the cost of educating them.

Ruth Randall, state commissioner of education, described herself as "elated'' about the plan's adoption, adding that she believes it will create a healthy climate of competition among districts.

"If you don't want to lose a student, you will provide the kinds of programs that will keep them in the district,'' she said.

If a district is unable or unwilling to meet a student's needs, she added, "it's just marvelous for that family to be able to choose another district.''

Under a compromise that smoothed the way for the bill's passage, districts with fewer than 1,000 students have been given an additional year before they will be required to implement the program.

The new law also provides transportation for students eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. It does not provide money for other students' transportation or for the extensive information dissemination that supporters of choice say is crucial to such programs' success.

Greater Role for Parents

Although many prominent educators and policymakers have endorsed the concept of allowing students and parents the freedom to choose among public schools, evidence of the idea's worth has been gathered in only a few districts and limited state programs.

Proponents of choice say that it empowers parents to seek the best education for their children.

The new law "will force parents and families into thinking much more about school and what they believe is best for their child, instead of simply saying, 'I live in this district so that's where my child will go,''' Ms. Randall said.

In turn, she said, "we have to tell parents more about our schools. We'll have to describe and define what we're doing, what our philosophy of schooling is.''

When first proposed by the Governor in 1985, a substantial majority of educators, lawmakers, and the general public were opposed to the open-enrollment plan. Many expressed concern about embarking on an unproven path that would radically alter the traditional concept of school-district residency.

But a variety of more limited choice plans have gained approval in Minnesota in the intervening years, and both evaluations and reactions to the programs have been highly favorable. (See Education Week, June 24, 1987.)

The first program, called postsecondary options, was approved in 1985. It allows high-school juniors and seniors to attend colleges and universities at no cost to them, receiving high-school credit for their work.

"Everyone trained their guns on open enrollment, and the postsecondary-options program somehow slipped through,'' the Governor recalled.

Last year, the legislature approved two more choice plans. One established a voluntary open-enrollment plan that 153 districts have elected to participate in next year; the other allowed "at risk'' students to transfer to a district where they could receive more appropriate services.

The latter attracted 1,400 participants this year, 700 of whom had already dropped out of school, according to the education department.

The experience gained with these programs helped bring about the dramatic shift in public and political attitudes that led to overwhelming support for the mandatory open-enrollment plan this year.

One state senator who opposed the plan in 1985, Ember Reichgott, sponsored the bill that won passage this year. "I think this step-by-step approach really worked,'' said Senator Reichgott.

As the other choice programs were put into place, she said, "a constituency began to build for choice and open enrollment, and many legislators became convinced that some of the problems we had initially foreseen were not coming to be.''

In contrast to 1985, when nearly every education organization in the state opposed the plan, only the Minnesota School Boards Association actively lobbied against open enrollment this year.

Governor Perpich and Ms. Randall have met with the leaders of these organizations an average of once a month to discuss the state's education needs. Observers credit the meetings with helping to resolve differences that posed threats to the Governor's ambitious agenda.

"We have a lot of the policy debates [in the meetings], so these battles don't have to be fought in the legislative arena,'' Ms. Randall said.

New Education Entitlement

In an effort to reach the estimated 600,000 functionally illiterate adults in Minnesota, the legislature also created a program that will allow many adults in the state to return to school to complete work toward a high-school diploma.

To be eligible for the program, the prospective students will be required to have completed 10th grade, and must be receving some form of public assistance, including unemployment compensation.

Legislators set the limits on the grounds that a wholly open program would prove too costly, and earmarked $1 million for its first year.

After enrolling in their local district, prospective students will be eligible to complete two years of free study either through the postsecondary-options program, at one of several "learning centers'' that the state education department has begun designating, or at a local high school, if the school board agrees.

'We believe our citizens should be entitled to attend public schools at any age,'' Governor Perpich said.

In other action, the legislature:

  • Enacted a set of incentives and sanctions to encourage teen-age mothers to remain in school, including day care, transportation, and the threat of losing some public assistance if they fail to comply.
  • Created an advisory committee to the legislative commission on public education, which will examine a wide array of school-district-organization issues in preparation for next year's session.
  • Raised the compulsory school-attendance age from 16 to 18, beginning with kindergartners who enroll next fall.
  • Increased general aid to school districts by $15.9 million.
  • Established a council to study the merits of creating a Native American school or district in the Twin Cities area.

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