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Minn. Governor Unveils Private School Voucher Plan

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Gov. Arne Carlson of Minnesota has announced the details of a voucher plan that would give families public money to send their children to private or religious schools.

His model resembles the controversial programs that have already been enacted in Ohio and Wisconsin--and are being introduced in several other states.

Gov. Carlson unveiled his 1996 education package Nov. 15 at City Academy, a St. Paul charter school. It includes money for computers, a college-investment fund, and after-school programs for urban children.

But the tuition vouchers of up to $3,000 per child are the showpiece of the Republican governor's plans, which require approval by a legislature controlled by Democrats.

The pilot program would be limited to Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Brooklyn Center, a Twin Cities suburb. The districts were chosen because of their concentration of students whose families receive federal aid.

The commissioner of the state's new department of children, families, and learning would choose one or more rural districts to participate in the pilot.

While vouchers have become one of Mr. Carlson's favorite subjects in recent months, they are still the subject of scrutiny in other states that are testing the concept.

In Wisconsin, for example, legislation passed at the urging of Gov. Tommy G. Thompson that adds religious schools to Milwaukee's four-year-old voucher program has drawn fierce criticism. Opponents of the expansion, who claim it violates the constitutional separation of church and state, are challenging the state in court.

Gov. George Voinovich of Ohio, meanwhile, plans to move ahead with a voucher program in Cleveland, where low-income families could use state funds to enroll their children in nonpublic schools next fall.

Similar measures have also been introduced this year by governors in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Lawmakers in Illinois and Oregon considered voucher plans this year. And in Congress, a measure passed by the House would create a voucher program for District of Columbia students. (See story, page 19.)

Gov. Carlson believes his proposal would overcome constitutional challenges because "it puts money in the hands of families," who make the decision whether to support religious schools, said Brian Dietz, one of his spokesmen.

The governor also claims his plan would force all schools to improve as they vie for students.

"Where there is no choice, there is no competition, and where there is no competition, there is lost potential for academic excellence," Mr. Carlson said in a statement this month.

The $500 to $3,000 vouchers would be given on a sliding scale according to income. A family of four could make about $41,000 a year and still qualify. Parents with students now attending nonpublic schools would also be eligible.

The state now spends $6,200 a year per pupil. The portion of that money not used by families in the voucher program would remain in the school districts where they live.

Sandra Peterson, the president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, called Mr. Carlson's voucher plan a "gimmick" that would add little to the state's range of options in public education. "We already have it all: open enrollment, alternative schools, magnet schools, even post-secondary options," she pointed out.

"We all know what we really need: standards," Ms. Peterson added. She said she was afraid the governor's attention to school choice would stall the state's effort to adopt new graduation requirements.

Mr. Carlson is expected to present his plan to the legislature in January. So far, lawmakers who have approved other unorthodox school-improvement programs in Minnesota appear divided over the issue.

Even though the legislature is in the hands of Democrats, who usually oppose vouchers, Mr. Carlson's aides said they believe the plan has a fighting chance because Minnesotans expect a high degree of freedom from their state and local governments.

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