Published Online: March 5, 1997

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In Switch, Minn. Legislators Back Education Package

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A year after Arne Carlson's education reform plans quickly crashed, Minnesota lawmakers of both parties are lined up behind much of the education package the Republican governor unveiled this year.

In fact, Republicans and Democrats alike are predicting that central elements of the plan will pass, including $10 million in new funding for charter schools, greater autonomy for schools that pledge to meet academic standards, more money for computers and computer hook-ups, and tax-free savings accounts for college costs.

"There's a lot more inclusion--that's definitely the mood here," said Josh Downham, an aide to Democratic Rep. Becky Kelso, who chairs an education subcommittee.

Already this session, the Democratic-controlled legislature has passed a once-controversial measure requiring uniform statewide tests for Minnesota students. The governor, who pushed unsuccessfully for the measure last year, signed the bill on Feb. 14.

Such cooperation was markedly absent from last year's session.

As the centerpiece of that agenda, Mr. Carlson urged the legislature to enact a pilot voucher program for Minneapolis, St. Paul, and suburban Brooklyn Center. The proposal garnered only one vote in the House education committee and served largely to reinforce ideological differences.

But the governor returned to the legislature this year with an education package that is more comprehensive and, absent the same voucher plan, more politically palatable.

Pragmatic Approach

With only one more full year in office, this is Mr. Carlson's last chance to alter an education system he has repeatedly faulted, and some observers say his agenda has a pragmatic cast. But it is also true that some of the ideas he was pushing earlier have gained wider acceptance.

The governor's proposals "seem conciliatory in the sense that they are not brand-new ideas people will have to assimilate," said Patricia A. Reinarts, a Senate aide. "But I also think there's been a change in the statewide thinking."

Accountability measures, which once drew strong opposition, especially from teachers, are now an accepted feature of the school reform debate.

"The chance is pretty great a lot of [the governor's plan] will pass in some form or another," Ms. Reinarts said.

The exception, observers agree, is the governor's watered-down voucher plan--a proposal to provide $150 million in tax credits and deductions for educational expenses including private school tuition. The plan would allow families earning less than $39,000 to get a tax credit of $1,000 per child, with a maximum of $2,000 per family, for private school tuition, tutoring, summer school, or alternative schools. In addition, the existing tax deduction for private school tuition would triple to $1,950 in elementary school and $3,000 in secondary school. That deduction, available to any family, would also be expanded by Mr. Carlson's plan to apply to many education-related expenses, such as computer purchases and tutoring.

Charter School Plan

Opponents argue that the deductions and credits, no matter how they are packaged, would siphon money from public education and fail to target the citizens who need the most help.

"Rather than a deduction for computers for every household, I'd much rather support a computer lab with after-school hours," said Rep. Mindy Greiling, a Democratic member of the House education committee.

On the other hand, Ms. Greiling applauded Mr. Carlson's proposal to put charter schools on a nearly equal per-pupil financial footing with regular public schools. The governor's plan would also lift the cap on the number of charter schools and remove the veto power of local school boards.

Mark Myles, the superintendent of the Duluth schools, said local officials are pleased with Mr. Carlson's efforts this time around. "He's pretty much right on a whole lot of the pieces," he said.

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