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Minnesota Legislature

Private school choice options

Published (3/2/2012)
By Erin Schmidtke
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Low-income students in poorly performing schools could have increased access to private school education.

HF273, sponsored by Rep. Kelby Woodard (R-Belle Plaine), proposes that these students could leave failing public schools to attend more effective private schools, with the state picking up the bill. On Feb. 29, members of the House Education Finance Committee debated whether this strategy would really help Minnesota kids.

Private school choice programs offer struggling families options, said Patrick Wolf, professor at the University of Arkansas. He described a study he conducted that showed positive results from similar choice programs in Milwaukee. Wolf cited outcomes including higher graduation rates and academic growth.

“Parents love them. And they deliver education more efficiently and tend to enhance, not undermine, the public purposes of education,” Wolf said.

Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls) disagreed. He referred to a 2005 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation that detailed poor management and even criminal activity in private schools that received state funding in Wisconsin. He worries similar malfeasance could occur with the aid of Minnesota public money. Davnie also questioned Wolf’s analysis of data, saying that the study results instead showed private schools in choice programs to be less effective than public schools.

Rep. Linda Slocum (DFL-Richfield) also voiced concern about the bill, explaining that private school teachers in Minnesota do not need to have licenses to instruct students. She said extending public money to unlicensed teachers is counter to a number of recently enacted education bills, which emphasized teacher accountability and knowledge.

Rep. Branden Petersen (R-Andover) expressed frustration with members’ hesitancy to support the bill.

“For the life of me, I cannot understand exactly what the problem is with letting the least fortunate among us make decisions about their kids’ education. Maybe I’m too simple of a guy,” Petersen said.

The bill was laid over for more work. Sen. Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge) sponsors the companion, SF388, which awaits action in the Senate Education Committee.

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