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Open-Enrollment Survey Finds Modest Effects in Minn.

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A Minnesota program that allows students to enroll in school districts other than their own appears to be having a modest but positive effect, according to an evaluation funded by the federal and state education departments.

The study, released last week by the Washington-based Policy Studies Associates Inc., examined Minnesota's open-enrollment program in 1989-90, the first year in which districts with more than 1,000 students were required to participate. Eighty percent of the state's districts participated in the program that year, including two-thirds of those that were not required to do so.

Fewer than one-half of 1 percent of students took advantage of the option in 1989-90.

Parents switched their children's schools primarily for academic reasons, according to a survey mailed to families who applied for interdistrict transfers. The findings contradict those cited in a national report on school choice released last week. (See related story, this page.

But the authors of the Minnesota study cautioned against drawing firm conclusions from the data, which they described as "baseline'' information. Just over half of the families surveyed--or 1,377 out of 2,663--responded to the questionnaire. The parents whose children did switch schools appeared to be satisfied with the changes.

For districts, the early effects of open enrollment appeared to be minimal. In a separate survey of 432 district administrators, of whom 338 responded, at least two-thirds reported no impact on their budgets, administrative strategies, racial balance, or school programs in 1989-90. Of those who reported some impact in these areas, a majority indicated that open enrollment had had a positive result, except in the case of budgetary effects.

Administrators were divided about whether the program would lead to greater cooperation or greater competition between school districts.

'Too Early To Judge'

"It is too early to judge whether the outcomes of open enrollment in this state will support the theories of either parental-choice advocates or detractors with respect to its effects on school improvement and student achievement,'' the report concludes.

A separate study of the state's educational options for at-risk youths during the same period found that the options were "successfully filling a useful niche.''

The options include alternative schools--administered by nonsectarian, community-based organizations in urban areas--and "area learning centers.''

The majority of students responding to a survey indicated that they were participating in the programs after dropping out. About two-thirds reported that they were very satisfied with the change, while over 90 percent reported some level of satisfaction. Close to 90 percent claimed to be doing better academically.

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