What Minnesota Has Learned about School Choice

By Nathan, Joe; Ysseldyke, James | Phi Delta Kappan, May 1994 | Go to article overview

What Minnesota Has Learned about School Choice


Nathan, Joe, Ysseldyke, James, Phi Delta Kappan


Minnesotans have avoided the rhetoric of "panacea or plague" that has been a feature of discussions of school choice in many parts of the country. Messrs. Nathan and Ysseldyke share comprehensive research and individual stories to illustrate what has been learned from choice programs in that state.

SUPPORT for Minnesota's cross-district public school choice laws is strong. Statewide polls have documented a major shift in public opinion on this topic. In 1985, 33% of Minnesotans were in favor of public school choice, and 60% were opposed. In 1992, 76% were in favor, and 21% were opposed. Moreover, a 1989 poll found that 61% of members of the Minnesota Education Association support cross-district public school choice.[1]

In general, Minnesotans have avoided the rhetoric of "panacea or plague" that has been a feature of discussions of school choice in many parts of the country. Advocates in Minnesota have seen choice as but one part of the comprehensive change that needs to take place in our schools. Moreover, even the strongest proponents of Minnesota's choice programs have stressed the fact that our state's plan is not necessarily the right plan for every other state. In this article we share comprehensive research and individual stories to illustrate what we have learned. The following brief stories offer encouraging, if anecdotal, evidence of the positive impact that school choice can have on the lives of young people.

* Paul R. writes, "If I hadn't had the opportunity to enroll in Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, I would certainly not have become an honor student, much less a college student. . . . High School was just holding me back. I was into trouble in grade school; my junior high and high school performance was poor. But when I found out about this program, I decided to go for it. . . . Here at the university, I have yet to get a C. All my grades are A's and B's. I never used to get an A or a B. This program was a saving grace for me and changed my life around."[2]

* Sim Franco is "proud to be a success story of one of Minnesota's first charter schools. I was on drugs. I abused alcohol. But [charter school teacher] Milo Cutter said it was up to me. Did I want to learn? Would I come to school every day? I proved it to her. I came every day. I taught an art class. I was on a committee. I did what I knew was right." Franco now attends St. Paul Technical College and is well on his way to becoming a graphic artist.[3]

* Amy Schmidt and Sheila Korby busily broke records for poor attendance in their former school district, where they attended only 11 of the first 100 days. Counselors blamed their poor attendance on drugs and alcohol, but the girls disagree. Like many students, they just didn't like school and were bored with their classes. They needed a change.

They transferred to a nearby district, which has a nontraditional program. Sheila comments about the new school in Rothsay, "They care more, and they give you a chance and don't just blow you off." Amy agrees: "They give you work that you actually want to do." Both young women feel better about themselves. They plan to finish high school and get good jobs, perhaps go on to higher education.[4]

* Ann enrolled in one course during the fall of her high school junior year. She had been a strong student in a suburban high school and wanted to see how she would do in college. In what would have been her senior year in high school, she was admitted as a full-time student at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology. During that year, she began working as a research assistant. She earned a bachelor's degree with honors, with a major in physics, at the age of 20.[5]

Minnesota was among the first states to adopt legislation in the area of school choice, and our experiences may prove useful to other states. In 1989 then-Gov. Bill Clinton proposed a version of cross-district public school choice for Arkansas. …

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