Minnesota’s choice programs have positive impact, but monitoring needed

Minnesota began experimenting with school choice in 1985. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University and the Hubert. H. Humphrey Institute evaluated these programs in 2002. They conclude that school choice has shown positive outcomes for many students in both alternative and traditional district schools, but caution that such programs need careful monitoring. Four kinds of choice programs have been tried in Minnesota:

  1. High school juniors and seniors have the option of attending a college or university full or part time with school money following them to pay for tuition, books and lab fees. Students are allowed to choose any school and are given high school and college credit simultaneously.
  • Twelve- to 21-year-old students who have not succeeded in traditional schools are allowed to attend smaller alternative schools created by districts or private organizations contracting with a school district.
  • Since 1988 students have been allowed to attend school in other districts as long as the receiving school has room and the transfer does not harm desegregation efforts.
  • Starting in 1991 educators were allowed to create new schools or to convert existing public or private nonsectarian schools into public charter schools. The schools are not allowed to use admissions tests and are held responsible for improving achievement; if they fail they are closed. These charter schools must be authorized by either school districts, post-secondary schools or nonprofit organizations with at least $1 million in assets.

Researchers found that the most popular choice programs were those that allowed students not succeeding in traditional school settings to attend different, often much smaller, alternative schools. The number of students attending these alternative programs grew from about 4000 in 1988 to more than 100,000 in the year 2000. More than 30 percent of Minnesota’s students in grades 7-12 now participate in one of the four choice programs.

Positive Results

The law that makes it possible for students to enroll in college during their last two years of high school has encouraged school districts to create new programs to entice students to stay in high school. New courses for which students can receive college credit have been added to the curriculum of many high schools. These courses increased from 1,200 in 1991 to about 10,000 by 2001. The number of Minnesota students taking Advanced Placement tests increased by more than 750 percent between 1985 and 2000, while the number increased 365 percent nationally.

The law that allows the creation of alternative schools for students not succeeding in traditional schools has encouraged school districts to create alternative programs rather than wait for other groups to do so. Parents report that schools also have become more responsive to their wishes. For example, parents who had been pushing for a Montessori elementary school were provided one by the school district after the charter law was passed.

Interviews with students and families across  the state show a high level of satisfaction with choice programs. Alternative schools appear to raise students’ goals. The percentage of students who plan to graduate and continue their education was two to four times higher for those who attended an alternative school for at least one year, compared to incoming students.

Although critics of charter schools assert that these programs have not produced educational innovations or improvements, these researchers found examples of innovations developed by charter schools that are being adopted by other schools:

  1. The Minnesota New Country School received a $4 million grant to replicate itself. It has received national recognition for its highly individualized project-based learning, for the public presentations made by its students every six weeks, for cooperative leadership, and for graduation based entirely on demonstration of skills and knowledge.
  2. New Visions School has received a federal replication grant to work with both charter and district schools in several states. This school uses mind relaxation and emerging technology to help students with various behavioral problems learn more effective ways to control their anger and other negative impulses.
  3. The Metro Deaf School draws students from 29 school districts and uses the American Sign Language in a language immersion program for the deaf and hard of hearing.
  4. Charter schools that share space with social service agencies or other schools are showing that these joint ventures save money and improve services to families and students.

A Note of Caution

Minnesota’s record with choice programs reveals some problems. There have been cases of financial mismanagement, showing that publicly funded alternative education programs can sometimes operate for years with little or no government oversight or financial accountability. Minnesota state legislators and proponents of choice have worked to strengthen the oversight of schools and to improve the process of approving charters.

Initially there were also some instances of students’ being transferred to build outstanding athletic teams, but tighter rules for transfer, including a ban on midyear transfers, have reduced this abuse of open enrollment.

Actual outcomes of this 15-year experiment with educational choice demonstrate that behavior problems are reduced when students transfer from large high schools to smaller programs, and overall, the effects for special-needs children has been positive. Charter schools in Minnesota serve a higher percentage of low-income and minority students and students with disabilities than district schools.

Despite its long-term commitment to choice, Minnesota has not adopted voucher legislation. A few private, nonsectarian schools have converted to charter schools, but they are not allowed to use admissions tests. Minnesota’s experiment with choice has had generally positive effects–both for students and for the educational system. But the record demonstrates the need for carefully crafted legislation and close monitoring of alternative programs.

“Lessons About School Choice From Minnesota: Promises and Challenges” Phi Delta Kappan Volume 84, Number 5, January 2003 pp. 350-355.

Published in ERN February 2003 Volume 16 Number 2

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