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Higher Participation in Minn. Choice Programs Reported

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More than 113,000 Minnesota students and their families actively selected a public school in 1992-93, according to a report released last week.

The level of participation found in the state's path-breaking public-school-choice programs is far higher than previous estimates.

The study is the latest salvo in a heated debate about how many students have benefited from choice programs. Previous reports, which focused on the number of Minnesota students transferring across school districts, found that fewer than 2 percent of youngsters--or about 13,000 students--exercised that option in 1991-92.

The new study, by the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, counted students who participated in all forms of local and statewide choice programs, including choice within districts.

Joe Nathan, the center's director and a prominent advocate of public school choice, described the findings as "enormously encouraging.''

Options Blossom

The study found that the number of educational options available to Minnesota students has grown by more than 150 percent since 1985, when the state passed its open-enrollment law. In 1985-86, 107 choices were available to students across the state; by 1992-93, there were 270.

These include "second chance'' programs for students who have fared poorly in traditional settings, postsecondary-enrollment options that enable high school students to take college courses for credit, and "schools within schools.''

Although most choices continue to be clustered around the state's larger metropolitan areas, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, the number of rural schools within schools also increased from zero in 1985 to 11 in 1992-93.

In 1985-86, only 38 districts offered students an option of any type, according to the report. By 1992-93, nearly a quarter of the state's 394 districts offered some type of choice to students.

Some of the greatest growth has been among the second-chance programs. The number of students using such programs increased from 6,265 in 1990-91 to 14,016 in 1992-93.

The study also reported modest but steady growth in the number of students transferring across districts.

Mr. Nathan said the figures in the study were conservative, noting that, in districts that offered only one alternative for students, it counted as "actively using choice'' only those students who elected to attend the nontraditional setting.

While citing anecdotal evidence that choice has benefited students and teachers, the report says data on academic achievement were not available.

Copies of the report are available for $6 each, including postage and handling, from the Center for School Change, University of Minnesota, 301 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, Minn. 55455; (612) 626-1834.

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