School Choice & Charters

GOP’s Host State Made Its Mark on Education Stage

By Mark Walsh — August 29, 2008 6 min read
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In a 1973 cover story, Time magazine detailed “The Good Life in Minnesota”—a place where crime was low, politics was “almost unnaturally clean,” and the citizenry was well educated.

Then-Gov. Wendell Anderson, a Democrat shown on the Time cover hoisting a fish caught in one of the state’s 10,000-plus lakes, was lauded as being a key figure in the state’s success, in particular for his 1971 effort to greatly equalize spending on education in the state by reducing property levies and increasing state taxes.

The change became known as the “Minnesota Miracle,” and most observers in the state believe its effects lasted a least a generation.

The delegates to the Republican National Convention are gathering in a state that is closely identified with a commitment to education. The state is also known for school choice, but not necessarily the form being advocated by Sen. John McCain, who will get the party’s nomination.

Minnesota enacted the nation’s first charter school law in 1991, and in 2000, then-President Bill Clinton observed the rise of the charter movement with a visit to the nation’s first public charter school, City Academy in St. Paul, which is just blocks away from where the Republicans will convene Sept. 1-4 at the Xcel Energy Center.

Last year, some 28,000 students in Minnesota attended charters—public schools operated with varying degrees of independence from the traditional system. That compares with 797,000 who were enrolled in district-run schools in the state in 2007-08.

“Last year, for first time, there were more kids attending charters in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs than in the cities,” said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “That’s fascinating, because in some places, charter schools are an exclusively urban phenomenon.”

Tough Tests, Diverse Students

For those delegates and other RNC visitors interested in education policy, there are several other characteristics of note about K-12 schools in the Twin Cities and in Minnesota. The state has maintained its reputation for clean, efficient government services, but a growing number of schools and districts are struggling to meet the adequate-yearly-progress requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, in part because the state’s test is more rigorous those of many others.

Besides the role of charters in the school choice debate, Minnesota also helped lay the constitutional groundwork for private school vouchers by enacting a tax deduction for private school tuition that includes religious schools, and then successfully defending the credit in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case.

Also, the state’s school population is more diverse than some visitors might expect of a cold-climate, upper Midwestern state that was settled by Scandinavians. Significant numbers of Hmong and Somali children attend schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

“We have an incredibly diverse student body,” said Meria Carstarphen, the superintendent of the 39,500-student St. Paul school system. Some 90 percent of the district’s large Asian population is Hmong, many the children of refugees.

Ms. Carstarphen worries that the Minnesota Miracle has been transformed in recent years into what one local businessman dubbed “Minnesota Mediocrity.”

“The costs of mandates have been passed straight through to school systems. It’s an extraordinary change from the very visionary change of the 1970s,” she said.

State Rep. Mindy Greiling, a Democrat and the chairwoman of the House education committee, agrees. She is behind a plan for a next-generation Minnesota Miracle, one designed to restore equity in state education spending, as well as bring adequacy—more money, in other words.

“We still have a very good education system, but we’re slipping,” Rep. Greiling said by phone from the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, where she was working a legislative booth. “We’ve been failing to invest in education like we did when we had the first Minnesota Miracle.”

Breaking Legal Ground on Choice

Sen. McCain of Arizona, who will receive the Republican nomination in St. Paul, likely has no position on state school spending in Minnesota. But his education plan calls for more school choice, and he proposes an expansion of the federally funded private school voucher program for underprivileged children in the District of Columbia.

The closest thing to a private school voucher in Minnesota is the tax deduction authorized for parents who send their children to private schools, including religious schools.

In its 1983 decision in Mueller v. Allen, the Supreme Court upheld the policy against a challenge that it violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion. The court noted that the deduction was neutral, in that it was also available to parents of public school children for certain educational expenses.

That decision helped lay the constitutional groundwork for the high court’s 2002 ruling upholding an Ohio plan of state-funded tuition vouchers for low-income Cleveland children in secular and religious private schools.

Meanwhile, over the past two years, Minnesota has seen a marked decline in the number of schools making AYP under the No Child Left Behind law. The number not making adequate progress increased from 483 in the 2005-06 school year to 937 in 2007-08, according to the state education department.

More than half of charter schools in the state—97 out of 167—did not make AYP. That rate was roughly the same for traditional high schools and elementary schools, but traditional middle schools or junior high schools fared much worse—164 of 235 did not report adequate progress.

“There’s a lot of discussion of this,” said Mr. Nathan. “Republicans are saying that something is wrong with NCLB when some of these schools are not making AYP.”

School in a Mall

School choice in Minnesota extends to some unusual lengths. Some Republican National Convention visitors are bound to seek out the Mall of America, the massive shopping shrine that is touted as the state’s most popular tourist site.

What many shoppers don’t realize is that along with more than 500 stores, Nickelodeon theme park, and Chapel of Love, the mall is home to a high school. The Metropolitan Learning Alliance is a school of choice for 10th, 11th, and 12th graders from five school districts—Bloomington, Minneapolis, Richfield, St. Louis Park, and St. Paul.

Opened in 1994, the school offers courses in visual arts, hospitality, law enforcement, business, and, of course, retail management. It’s located on the mall’s third floor, between the Dollar Tree store and the LensCrafters.

Meanwhile, Ms. Carstarphen, the St. Paul superintendent, is excited that the presence of the Republican convention in her city provides a learning opportunity for her school district’s students. But since the unusually late convention is opening one day before school starts in St. Paul, the superintendent does not have time to participate in any of the hoopla.

“My entire focus is on the opening of school,” she said.

And on Thursday night, Sept. 4, while Sen. McCain is accepting his party’s nomination, Ms. Carstarphen and the members of the St. Paul school board will be in attendance—at their regularly scheduled board meeting.

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week

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