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Minn. Choice Programs Are Found To Have Small But Beneficial Effect

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Giving parents and children a choice among public schools has small but generally positive effects, according to two new studies on Minnesota's choice programs.

The reports--prepared by Policy Studies Associates, a Washington-based research firm, under contract with the U.S. Education Department--found that many of the dire predictions about public school choice, such as racial inequities, have not materialized.

Between 1985 and 1991, Minnesota passed several laws designed to increase educational options, including an open-en-rollment option that allows children in grades K-12 to attend schools outside their home districts, a program that enables 11th and 12th graders to enroll in college courses, and a program that enables high school students at risk of dropping out to transfer to alternative schools.

In 1991-92, the latest year for which comparable data are available, 4 percent of Minnesota's students chose the school they attended, up from 3 percent the previous year.

The figures are based on data collected by the state education department. They exclude the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which require some students to select their schools. If Minneapolis and St. Paul are included, participation in choice programs rises to 13 percent.

Statewide, minority students used school choice at the same rate as white students, and their rate of participation increased from 1990-91 to 1991-92.

Excluding the Twin Cities, open enrollment was the most frequently used form of choice.

Researchers found that use of the various options was somewhat related to demographics. The study said open enrollment was more likely to occur in small districts, suburban and rural districts, and high-poverty districts. Programs aimed at potential dropouts were most popular in large districts.

Impact Mixed

Researchers also surveyed administrators to assess the effects of open enrollment on districts that gained or lost the most students in 1990-91.

Administrators in high-impact districts generally believed that academics played an important role in families' decisions to switch districts. This was especially true at the high school level. Among elementary school families, they reported, proximity to home or work was a major factor.

Administrators in districts that lost large numbers of children were more likely to cite nonacademic factors as the primary reason for student transfers.

While school-choice advocates maintain that the threat of competition will spur schools to improve, it remains unclear whether that occurred in Minnesota.

The studies found that districts that lost large numbers of students put more effort into disseminating information about open enrollment. They were also more likely to take steps aimed at attracting or keeping students than districts that gained enrollment.

But, over all, the program appeared to have had little impact on such indicators as school finances, academic offerings, and student services. While administrators reported changes over the past five years in such school characteristics as student-teacher ratios and the number of Advanced Placement courses offered, most cited factors other than open enrollment as the cause.

Copies of the reports, "Minnesota's Public School Choice Options" and "Minnesota's Open Enrollment Option: Impacts on School Districts," are available from the Planning and Evaluation Service, U.S. Education Department, 600 Independence Ave., S.W., Room 4162, Washington, D.C. 20202; (202) 401-5290.

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