Governor Puts Minnesota Out Front on School Choice

The governor of Minnesota grew up in the Bronx. It shows up in how he tells a story (well), and how he talks about the issue that is giving him a national reputation - education.

"It's education that's the heart of the American dream, not welfare or health care," says Arne Carlson, the son of Swedish immigrant parents. Any kid with a good education has a shot at "The Big Apple," he says. Under his leadership, Minnesota just passed the nation's first educational choice plan, which national Republican leaders are already touting as a model for reform.

The Republican governor says that the defining event of his life was being accepted as a scholarship student into Choate, an elite private school in Wallingford, Conn. He recalls the first time he saw the playing fields - "grass was pretty foreign to me" - and then sitting down in front of two-hour placement exams in grammar and algebra.

"I'd never heard of grammar, so I left lots of empty paper. I'd never heard of algebra, so that exam was left blank, too. I went back to my room, cried, then packed my bags. I hid out in the dining room, because I knew they would come to send me back home," he says.

They didn't. He was assigned to all the "dummy classes," but he was on the list. "Choate picked me up out of an ash heap, and gave me a shot at a quality education." School choice can do the same for poor kids in Minnesota, he says.

According to Governor Carlson, something had to be done. Sixty-five percent of the third graders in Minneapolis and St. Paul were failing math and reading, he says. "We had two choices: pump more money into the old system or try something different. The market has always driven excellence in this country," he says.

Carlson's first bid to introduce market disciplines into education was a school voucher plan. The plan managed to eke out only one vote in the legislature when he first proposed it in 1995. "It was just a trial. We didn't really expect to win," he says.

He sent his staff back to the drawing board. Instead of a voucher, which would have transferred funds directly to private schools, they proposed a package of tax deductions and credits for education, and vigorously lobbied minority groups for support.

The plan gives a refundable tax credit of $1,000 for families earning less than $33,500 per year. It also doubles tax deductions for school-age children, and can be used to offset costs for computers, software, tutors, educational summer camps, or private school tuition.

The $6.7 billion K-12 education plan also included lifting restrictions on charter schools, more computers in the classroom, and state-wide testing, which Minnesota law had excluded.

The Democratic-controlled legislature passed virtually all these proposals, but balked on the school-choice provisions. Carlson vetoed the bill - "one of the most difficult moments in my life" - and held out for school choice. Public opinion rallied to the governor. On the eve of the vote, 65 percent favored tax credits for private schools.

He also stepped up attacks on those legislators and public school teachers who "send their own kids to private school, but deny the same access to low-income parents."

Legislators came to a compromise in special session: Private school tuition could still be deducted from state income taxes, but could not be claimed as a credit.

"He's an education reform hero," says Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona's state superintendent and a leader in the charter school movement. "He had the guts to take on the education establishment and the teacher's union and the usual voices against reform and insist on what's best for the children, not what's best for the system."

In stump speeches, Carlson refers to the teachers' unions as "the 800 pound gorilla," the "education cartel," and "people not committed to reform." But teachers and school administrators say that the governor's hard-line rhetoric misrepresents the challenges of Minnesota's public schools and the real efforts they are making.

"We are anguished by the quality of public education for kids, but we're not looking for flash-in-the-pan solutions," says Bill Green, chairman of the Minneapolis school district.

"Vouchers serve the governor well and some people of poverty, but they are hardly a solution to the systemic problems of public schools," he says. "There are 80 different languages in our district, high mobility, and large numbers of students with special needs. And the governor expects us to compete on a par with more prosperous school districts. We're comparing a child from Somalia with one who lives in a $200,000 home."

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