Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Lessons about School Choice from Minnesota: Promise and Challenges

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Lessons about School Choice from Minnesota: Promise and Challenges

Article excerpt

What impact have Minnesota's public school choice options had on the state's education system overall? Mr. Nathan and Mr. Boyd report on some unanticipated positive results, some negative predictions that did not come to pass, and a few unfortunate instances that underscore the need for careful monitoring of the programs and the schools participating in them.

THE SUPREME Court's voucher decision in July 2002 adds to the importance of understanding the promise and challenges of school choice within the public school system.1 An analysis of Minnesota's experience with school choice programs between 1985 and 2002, conducted by researchers at Penn State University and the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute, shows that school choice programs can be valuable and can help to stimulate improvement in the broader system. But the research we conducted also makes clear that any school choice plan needs to be carefully monitored and that participating schools should be reviewed regularly.2

Data for this project were gathered in several ways. More than 2,000 students were surveyed, including students who took advantage of the state's Post-Secondary Enrollment Options law and students at six representative alternative schools in rural, urban, and suburban areas. More than 50 individuals, including representatives of key state education, community, and business organizations, were also interviewed. An extensive research and literature review was carried out, and, in cooperation with Minnesota's Department of Children, Families, and Learning (the state education department), information was gathered and analyzed from previously unpublished state records.

A Brief Overview of Minnesota's School Choice Laws

Minnesota began passing public school choice legislation in 1985 and has enacted four major programs.

* Postsecondary options (1985). This program allows high school juniors and seniors to attend a college or university full or part time, with state funds following the students to pay tuition and lab and book fees. Any student admitted by a college or university is eligible, and the decision to apply is left to the student.

* Second-chance options (1987). This program allows 12- to 21-year-old students who have not succeeded in traditional schools, according to a variety of measures, to attend smaller alternative schools created by a district, a group of districts, or a private organization that can convince a district to give it a contract.

* Open enrollment (1988). This program allows K-12 students to move across district lines as long as the receiving district has room and the movement does not harm desegregation efforts.

* Charter schools (1991). This program allows educators to create new schools or convert existing public or private nonsectarian schools into public charter schools with no admissions tests. The schools are responsible for improving achievement, or they are closed. These schools must be authorized or "sponsored" by one of several groups, including local districts, postsecondary institutions, or nonprofit organizations with at least $1 million in assets.

Who Participates in School Choice?

A great deal of discussion has taken place about "open enrollment" and charter schools. But our research demonstrated that the largest school choice programs in Minnesota -- by far -- were those authorized by the 1987 law allowing students who had not succeeded in traditional school settings to attend a different, often much smaller, alternative school. This program is also the fastest growing. According to state figures, the number of students participating in second-chance programs grew from 4,050 in 1988-89 to more than 100,000 in 2000-01. Meanwhile, participation in the open enrollment program grew from 140 in 1988 to just over 28,000 in 2000-01.

From 1988 to 2000, overall K-12 enrollment grew 17%, but the number of students participating in one of the four statewide choice programs grew more than 1,300%. …

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