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Minnesota's Education Leadership: Leitmotif for Policy Issues Looming

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Minnesotans, who pride themselves on their reputation for educational excellence and innovation, have much to mull over during this legislative season.

Gov. Rudy Perpich, who broke onto the national scene several years ago with far-reaching ideas for expanding parental choice in the public schools, now proposes to go one step further by enabling dropouts and "at risk" students to attend private nonreligious schools with full public funding.

"I believe choice is going to make more of an impact on improving education in Minnesota than anything that we have done previously," said Mr. Perpich in an interview last week.

But the popular Democrat, who is also chairman of the Education Commission of the States, has been shaken in recent weeks by a new report that decries Minnesota's lack of state-level leadership in education.

The report, issued late last month by the legislative auditor's office, concluded that the state's reputation for educational excellence is "overstated and out of date."

According to the report, high-school academic standards in Minnesota are "too lax," college-admission-test scores have dropped, and "many schools fail to provide the academic opportunities that students need."

The report recommends a number of measures to strengthen state standards, monitoring, and accountability, including the enactment of a statewide testing program.

In response, Mr. Perpich proposed in his State-of-the-State Message last week a statewide testing program in English, mathematics, science, and social studies for all 6th and 10th graders.

The Governor said he continues to have "mixed emotions" about the utility of statewide testing, which he has been under pressure to adopt from the state's business community.

But he conceded that creation of the testing program would introduce a greater balance between state and local control, as called for in the report.

And he said that, in general, the report will be "very helpful" to him in accomplishing his legislative goals this year.

In his State-of-the-State Message, the Governor continued to emphasize education as one of the major routes to a stronger economy. And he reiterated his belief that choice is the best means for strengthening the schools.

"Choice works," he said. "Choice, supported by testing, will create a marketplace for education that is accountable and responsive to the individual needs of our students."

Mr. Perpich did not refer last week to his previous proposals for full-day kindergarten and expanded preschool programs in the state. But he is expected to unveil more initiatives on behalf of children in a speech later this month.

The Governor's newest proposals garnered mixed reviews from legislators and educators, several of whom predicted that this legislative session would be a "contentious" one.

In addition to Mr. Perpich's proposals, lawmakers are expected to act on a controversial recommendation to create a separate Indian school district within the Twin Cities area. They will also continue to debate the best solution to Minnesota's desegregation problems. And they could consider a proposal from the Citizen's League of Minneapolis-St. Paul that would enable small groups of educators to create their own schools under "charters" from their district or the state.

In addition, legislators predicted a relatively tight budget this session--at a time when many educators are complaining that the state's K-12 system is underfunded and in need of a substantial injection of new monies.

"The needs that are being articulated and the fact that the dollars are fairly sparse is going to create lots of tension," said Robert Astrup, president of the Minnesota Education Association.

Senator Randy Peterson, chairman of the education-finance division of the Senate's education committee, agreed that it is likely to be a contentious session. "I doubt there will be many issues that overshadow [education]," he said.

Mr. Perpich's plan to permit drop4outs and "at risk" students to attend private schools at public expense, as long as the schools have no religious affiliation, is expected to be among the most divisive for lawmakers.

At present, state law provides full funding for an "at risk" student or dropout to attend a public school that is not in his or her school district, a public-sponsored learning center, or a public or private college.

The law also provides at least half of the regular public-school funding for such students if they choose to attend a private nonreligious school that already has a contract with their district to provide such services.

Under Mr. Perpich's new proposal, these schools would receive 100 percent of public-school funding. And they would not have to have a previous contractual arrangement with the school district.

To qualify as "at risk," a student must have missed 15 consecutive days of school, fallen two years behind in achievement or one year behind in earning the credits needed to graduate, be chemically dependent, or be pregnant or a parent.

The Governor said last week that it was unfair to expect private schools to provide comparable services to "at risk" students and dropouts for only half the funds that public schools receive. He also said the proposal would make it easier for students to select alternative schools.

But thus far, his arguments have met with a lukewarm reception from lawmakers. Bob McEachern, chairman of the House education committee, last week said he opposed the Governor's latest choice proposal.

"We're doing a hell of a lot in that area already," he said. "I think that if a kid drops out of school and really wants to get back in, the opportunities are there throughout the state."

Senator Peterson also said he would be "surprised" if lawmakers agreed to provide full public funding for a student to attend a private school without a contract with a school district.

Legislators also offered mixed reactions to the Governor's testing proposals. Under Mr. Perpich's plan, the state would publish the results of the new tests on a district-by-district basis. That information would enable parents and students to choose schools which best fit their needs, the Governor said.

Senator Ember Reichgott, a Democrat from suburban Minneapolis who introduced a statewide testing bill last year, said she was "very pleased" with the current proposal.

But Representative McEachern said he was not in favor of publishing test results that would benefit one school or district at the expense of another. "I think there are better answers than that," he argued.

Education Commissioner Ruth Randall said in an interview last week that she was "very much in favor" of the Governor's proposals.

But she said she had reservations about other recommendations made in the legislative auditor's report. The report recommended, for example, that approximately 75 rural school districts with high-school populations of fewer than 100 students undergo "gradual reorganization."

The consolidation of school districts is unlikely to be achieved by state mandate, argued Ms. Randall. Those views were echoed by the8Governor, who said previous consolidation attempts had resulted in a "bloody mess."

Ms. Randall said she also opposed the auditor's proposal to extend the school year, which she said could cost as much as $20 million for each additional day. What is needed, she suggested, is to make more efficient use of the time that schools now have.

The auditor's study was conducted at the request of the Legislative Audit Commission, a group of leading lawmakers who were concerned about equity issues and the adequacy of educational standards.

In addition to choice and testing, lawmakers are expected to take up a number of other difficult issues this year, including:

Desegregation. For the past two years, the legislature has provided funds to Minnesota's largest urban school districts to assist in their desegregation efforts. Debate continues over whether those funds areient and what the goals of desegregation should be.

Indian school district. A 15-member Indian School Council, convened by the legislature last February, has proposed the creation of a new school in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to be attended primarily by Indian students and run by a separate Indian school district.

David Beaulieu, director of Indian education for the state education department and a member of the council, said such a school is needed because of the "failure" of the current school system to serve the needs of Indian students. But lawmakers said the proposal was unlikely to be enacted in its current form.

"We in the House are not in favor of that," said Representative McEachern. "It just takes the desegregation question and raises hell with it."

Chartered schools. The Citizens League, a public-affairs research and education organization in the Twin Cities area, has proposed that groups of educators be permitted to create their own schools, or schools-within-a-school, under a charter from either their local district or the state.

Such public schools would be operated by licensed educators. And they would be required to serve all children, be integrated by ability level and race, and meet desegregation rules and accreditation standards.

The league wants the legislature to authorize the creation of chartered schools by the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts in 1989 and by the state department of education by 1992.

"It adds up to an invitation to release this pent-up entrepreneurial spirit that you hear so much about" said Curtis W. Johnson, executive director of the league, "where teachers say they are frustrated, they know what they could do that would work better, but the restrictions and the too-centralized bureaucracy stop them from doing it."

"We want to find out if that's true," he said.

The proposal was greeted enthusiastically by Ms. Randall, who said it fits in with the Governor's ideas about choice. But lawmakers last week predicted that it would not go far this session because initial reactions have been negative.

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