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In Nation's First Open-Enrollment State, the Action Begins

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Minneapolis--In this state, where the nation's first comprehensive open-enrollment plan is scheduled to debut next fall, the preparations have attracted a constant stream of visitors from other locales where the idea is also being debated.

Last month, for example, a meeting showcasing Minnesota's several innovative choice programs drew representatives from 31 states.

But while the demonstrated successes of Minnesota's choice programs for high-school upperclassmen and at-risk youth drew accolades, most at the conference were more interested in the stories circulating about school districts that are already facing the flight of a significant portion of their students under the broader open-enrollment plan.

Almost 2,800 Minnesota students have requested a transfer to a new district for the school year beginning next fall, the first year of a two-year phase-in of the plan.

In the months since the applications were filed, a small school district in northern Minnesota, Mountain Iron-Buhl, has become a nationally known symbol for the worst-case scenario under free school choice.

Some 319 of the district's 1,074 students have applied to transfer to neighboring districts, confronting Mountain Iron-Buhl officials with the task of cutting $1.2 million from next year's budget.

If the students ultimately opt to transfer, "they will have certainly put some huge limits on the 700 that remain," said Robert Duncan, the district's superintendent.

"There is not a direct correlation between lost state aid and being able to go in and cut our budget," he said. "If we lose six students in one class, nothing else changes. We still need the same teachers, the same lights, the same heat, the same custodial services, and the same administration."

Both he and outside observers agree that many of the families leaving the Mountain Iron-Buhl schools are choosing to transfer for political, rather than academic reasons. Most are protesting the closing of a school that had traditionally served the town of Buhl.

"If the board would reverse its decision, they would come back," Mr. Duncan said of the transferring students.

Supporters of the state's open-enrollment plan argue that this situation should not be used as evidence supporting the charge of critics that choice poses a significant threat to educational stability.

"Most people in the know understand that that example represents a long-term problem that surfaced as soon as parents had an opportunity to say, 'We're choosing to leave,"' said Peggy O. Hunter, an enrollment-options specialist in the Minnesota Department of Education.

Planning Said 'Impossible'

But the experiences of Mountain Iron and other districts have pointed out a fundamental problem in the implementation of open enrollment in Minnesota: Neither the losing nor the winning districts will know how many students will actually transfer until schools open next fall.

"It makes planning just about impossible," said Mr. Duncan.

"That is the real danger of the law," agreed James L. Smith, superintendent of schools in Westonka, which lies in the outer ring of Minneapolis suburbs. The district may have to cut $435,000 from its budget next fall, Mr. Smith said, because 131 of Westonka's 2,500 students have applied for transfers under open enrollment.

"Especially in our case," he said, "what makes it uncertain is thatel10lmany parents are actually delaying the real decision until this school district has another levy referendum for funding. If it passes, they will very likely stay, and if it fails, they will very likely go."

Two previous levy requests by the district failed, he added.

Minnesota lawmakers, supported by state education officals, are considering an amendment to the plan that would require families to commit to their new district for at least one year.

Similar provisions have also been written into most of the open-enrollment plans currently being considered in other states.

Iowa's new choice program adds an additional element of stability by allowing students to exercise their choice options only once every four years. In Nebraska, an open-enrollment bill would grant students the right to choose only once in their school career.

Athletics Is an Issue

Another issue that has provoked debate in Minnesota, as well as in most of the other states considering open-enrollment plans, is the prospect that students would choose to transfer to another district based on the quality of its athletic programs.

Minnesota officials are divided both on whether such transfers should be permitted and on whether they have actually occurred.

Commissioner of Education Ruth Randall downplays the issue, saying that the few students who transfer for athletic reasons may also become more involved in the academic program of their new district.

But the organization that supervizes high-school athletics in the state has asked the legislature to make transferring students ineligible to participate in extracurricular sports for a certain minimum period.

Student athletes who transfer into a district and displace a team member from the hometown "cause a lot of disharmony and disruption," said David V. Stead, executive director of the Minnesota State High School League.

The legislature needs to act to "preserve the integrity" of both academics and athletics, he added.

Lawmakers in several states have included athletic-eligibility restrictions in the choice bills that they have proposed.

Minnesota officials have not yet collected enough data to evaluate4the impact of open enrollment on equity, the issue that is of most concern to many of the policymakers debating this idea.

Equity and 'Elitism'

In the absence of hard evidence to support or refute crticisms of open enrollment based on equity concerns, most of the debate focuses on the theoretical question of whether or not a free market in education can be regulated in such a way as to provide equal opportunities for all students.

Most state proposals contain equity protections similar to those written into Minnesota's plan, including a ban on student transfers that would interfere with existing urban desegregation programs.

Virtually all of the open-enrollment plans currently under consideration would also prohibit districts from excluding students based on their past academic achievement or disciplinary record.

But almost all would also allow school districts to vote to close their borders to incoming transfer students, which leads some experts to question whether suburban districts would exclude low-income and minority students from nearby cities.

In a recent poll of school-board presidents, for example, those from suburban districts were most opposed to choice.

Taken 'a Lot of Heat'

Such accusations have been leveled at the Edina Public Schools, the only Minnesota district that voted not to participate in the program for reasons other than lack of space.

"They've taken a lot of heat about being elitist," said Ms. Hunter. "Some people say it appears they are acting like a private school system, because they want to approve those students that enter their district."

Edina school officials insist that their vote was intended as a protest against the logistical problems caused by the legislation, not as a signal that they would not welcome students from diverse backgrounds.

"We have always viewed open enrollment as a program that was supposed to improve education, improve school systems, and also improve kids' educational opportunities through choice," said Sarah Johnson, a member of the Edina school board.

"If that's the case, we think there should be an educational reason cited" for transfer requests, she said.

Transportation, Money Factors

Several choice experts also argued that choice plans must include transportation for low-income students and a means of encouraging parents to play an active role in choosing their children's school if they are to offer truly equal opportunities.

But in most states that are debating open-enrollment plans, very little new money is being proposed for such programs.

"It is naive to believe that a pure market will have the desired effect," said Charles Glenn, the author of a statewide choice proposal for Massachusetts who has supervised several district-level choice plans in his role as director of the state education department's office of educational equity.

"Schools are not like other commodities," he said. "You must have interventions to ensure equity and efficiency."

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