Multiple choice. Minnesota opens enrollment - and eyes reform

FIVE years into the most intense, sustained effort at education reform in United States history, a design for better schools is still evolving. But some educators in Minnesota think future generations will point to their state as a key example of how real reform began to take effect. The nation's first statewide public school choice plan was approved last month by the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Rudy Perpich. The law allows parents to send their children to another public school - across town, in a neighboring suburb, or anywhere in the state, with $3,600 in state funds following. The measure gives Minnesota the nation's broadest open-enrollment plan.

The new law will take effect in two stages. Starting in September 1989, schools enrolling 1,000 or more students will have open enrollment. By 1991, choice will extend to all schools in the state. The delay is designed to give the many smaller, rural districts - where a transfer of 15 or 20 students would result in a 20 percent shift in enrollment - more time to plan. Under the new law, schools can refuse students only if the transfer will interfere with court-ordered desegregation ratios in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth, or if a school is full.

``By 1991, 10 percent of the students in Minnesota will cross district lines to attend another school,'' says Joe Nathan, one of the architects of the choice plan and an education adviser to the governor. Parents whose children have switched to other schools tend to be more satisfied with their education, Mr. Nathan says.

Surveys support his claim. A recent state study of the 137 families who sent their children across district lines found the approval rating was 100 percent. In the last two years, public high schools have quadrupled the number of advanced-placement courses they offer in response to a Minnesota plan that allows juniors and seniors to take college courses on any campus in the state with tax money paying for tuition.

A more ``realistic'' estimate for the number of students who will cross district lines is ``upwards of 5 percent,'' says Robert Buresh of the Minnesota Education Department. But there's no question the new law will have an impact, he says. ``This is the first chance parents have for real governance. Now a parent can say, `I can take my kid down the road, with my tax dollars following,''' he says. Mr. Buresh was a high school principal for 15 years before joining the Education Department.

For the last five years, Minnesota has been a hotbed of alternative school plans. It began open enrollment on a voluntary basis this school year, with 137 students in 95 districts choosing to participate. Under the voluntary program, districts had the option of accepting or refusing transfers from outside their districts. For the 1988-89 school year, 435 students in 153 districts have already applied, says Buresh. The state has 700,000 students and 435 districts. ``Success of the program should not be measured by the number of kids who cross over to another school,'' says Ted Kolderie, senior fellow at the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in Minneapolis and a leading advocate of the Minnesota choice plan. He says the program is already successful, because ``schools can no longer take kids for granted.'' This, more than any other reform, will result in better education for children, he says.

The various choice plans passed in Minnesota have school improvement as a rationale, not parental rights, Mr. Kolderie says. When you have a system that requires attendance, has an exclusive franchise, and has fixed geographic boundaries, ``You have a system where the school district has independence from accountability,'' he says. Now, every school will be a school of choice. A process of change that relies on the actions of students and families rather than the political status quo means a whole new dynamic is in place, he says.

In 1986, Minnesota passed a high school incentives bill to benefit students who were two or more years behind grade level or those who had dropped out of school altogether. Fourteen hundred students chose to participate in this plan and a school outside their residential district. Of these, 700 were dropouts returning to a school of their choice, says Buresh.

``I think [at the outset] the new law will result more in an improved feeling than a fact of improvement in schools,'' says Harry Vakos, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. His organization opposed the choice law.

``Test scores are not going to go up as a result of this,'' he says. Minnesota already ranks third (out of 28 states) on the ACT, an equivalent of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and this isn't going to change, he says. He does not question that the school environment is more positive where students can say they have chosen the school.

Ironically, the teachers' union (the Minnesota Education Association), which vigorously fought all the choice plans, now sees possible benefits in what is taking place, says Gene Mammenga, a lobbyist for the association. ``I couldn't convince people the sky was falling,'' he says.

Ultimately, he couldn't convince himself. ``We are starting to see it as a teacher empowerment bill,'' Mr. Mammenga says. ``You really can't talk about improving schools if it doesn't matter what the labor force does,'' he says. Now, the superintendent and principal are most threatened if a large number of students opt to leave the district or a school. Teacher input will be much greater to avert or stem such a flow, he says.

What is happening in Minnesota, says Tim Mazzoni, associate professor of education at the University of Minnesota and an acknowledged expert on the choice plan in Minnesota, ``is the unfolding of a significantly new educational structure.''

He encourages people to take a long view of the Minnesota plan. ``It is important to think about choice as it is likely to emerge,'' he says, rather than what will happen at any given point in time. Four areas in particular should be watched, Mr. Mazzoni says.

Students. The number of students who have chosen to go to a different school isn't very important yet. But it has been growing, and it's unclear how big the percent who switch will get.

Parents. So far, parents are still not well informed. As the range of information to parents expands, the impact of choice may be very great.

Attitudes. Choice has a strong, positive impact on the psychology of parents and students about a school. This is tremendously encouraging.

Nonparticipants. No one knows what the impact will be on the ``non-choosers, the non-choice'' parents. Mazzoni wonders what will happen to schools that lose some resources. Will they adapt, will they form alliances with other schools, especially small rural schools, or will they just fold up?

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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