Monday, June 16, 2008

A different approach to schools - what we can learn from Minnesota

This is also posted at Daily Kos

As the Federal government has delayed reauthorization of the basic law affecting public schools, the Elementary And Secondary Education Act, the most recent version of which is (unfortunately and inaccurately) as No Child Left Behind, perhaps now might be a good time to explore alternative approaches to public education. Since public education is primarily the responsibility of the states, and since the Federal government provides less than 8% of the cost of public education, perhaps rather than Federally imposed mandates we can explore what states have done to address some of the needs of public education. And if we are willing to go down that path (as I certainly am), perhaps the first state at which we would look would be Minnesota.

Had I any doubts of the wisdom of such an examination, they would have been removed after reading a May 4 column in the Providence Journal by Julia Steiny entitled Columnist Julia Steiny looks at Minnesota’s plan to save money and improve schools. Let me begin by discussing what in that column caught my attention.

Steiny begins her column with an argument about reducing the number of school divisions in Rhode Island from its current 36. That holds little interest for me, but in the process of looking for different examples, she had a discussion with Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, about whom she notes that
Nathan had a hand in writing several of the Minnesota school-choice bills, including the nation’s first charter school legislation. He was also an author of the 1991 Open Enrollment legislation that offered public-school choice to all families.
While I have never met nor spoken with Nathan, we have overlapped on various educational lists for more than a decade and I have been well aware of his work. He was gracious enough to help me in obtaining information I needed in order to write about the Minnesota approach.

Let me return to Steiny's column, in which she wrote of MN that
Its technique was to pass a series of laws allowing all children, K-12, to attend whatever school the family chooses, provided there is room. The money followed the students. The parents were thrilled, and the bureaucracies had no choice but to adjust.

Unappealing or incompetent districts lost students, so rather than run astronomically expensive programs for the remaining students, they merged with stronger districts. Good schools filled to capacity, which is the most cost-efficient way to run them. Bad ones closed, which also saves money. Kids generally got better, more efficient schools.

And there wasn’t so much to fight about. Consolidations took place. Tax money flowed more directly to good schools and away from bureaucratic waste.

Steiny quotes Nathan as saying that because the power was placed in the hands of parents, districts might have consolidated, but also might have found ways to cooperate to increase the options offered to parents for their children, options that might attract those parents. According to 2005 survey run by the Center, 80% of respondents said that parents should have some voice in selecting the schools their children attend. And while Nathan properly warned that no single approach is a panacea to solve the problems faced by our schools, he also noted that the approach in MN allowed teachers greater voice in designing the alternatives of schooling offered to parents. This has resulted in a great variety of options from which parents can choose.

Before I explore those options in more detail, allow me to quote what Nathan said about himself:
“I entered this issue in the 1970s for social justice reasons. All kids need options. Not crummy options, good options. Some kids flourish in core knowledge, Montessori, or two-way bilingual. Others need a multiple-intelligence school, international baccalaureate, or one that teaches how to repair computers. Every kid should have transportation and no admissions test. Families have options for daycare, nursery school, college, so why not public school?”
Minnesota may not yet have fully implement the sweep of this kind of vision, but as a state it has probably gone further than any other, and certainly it has done enough to warrant anyone interested in public education policy taking a closer look.

An examination of the website of the state's Department of Education will take you to this page, which lists all the options of school choice (of which I will only examine those relating to public school choice). Allow me to quote the text with which the page begins:
Minnesota is a place where all parents have meaningful public school choices for their children. Minnesota is, after all, the state that brought the nation the charter school movement. It is also a state where students may “open enroll” into schools that are part of school districts where the families do not reside. It’s a place where Minneapolis students encounter a wealth of choices not only within their district, but also in nearby suburbs, with transportation provided free. And it’s a state where the borders of a classroom can be as broad as the global connections of the worldwide web. With this wide range of learning options, Minnesota families are often able to find a school that meets their child’s individual needs.

The website provides information on five different aspects of public school choice. These are

Charter schools, which have existed in MN since 1992, and of which there are currently 158 in operation. The Department notes of charter schools that they
employ licensed teachers, offer services to special needs students and require students to take state and national tests to assure academic accountability. They do not charge tuition, and there are no admission requirements to enroll students in charter schools. New charter schools with exciting programs open their doors to students every year in Minnesota. Parents may contact charter schools directly to find out about the type of programs and enrollment options.

Alternative Education provides more than 150 programs at over 600 sites for students under 21 at risk of not graduating who meet ANY of the following criteria:
(1) are performing substantially below grade level; (2) at least one year behind in credits for graduation; (3) are pregnant or parents; (4) have experienced physical or sexual abuse; (5) are chemically dependent; (6) have mental health problems; (7) have been homeless recently; (8) have withdrawn from school or been chronically truant; or (9) speak English as a second language or have limited English proficiency.

Online Learning gives students the ability to take such courses either as supplementals in place of a regular class during the school day, or as the sole means of obtaining a public education. The state maintains a clearinghouse of approved programs, and all those certified by the state
are taught by Minnesota licensed teachers, meet or exceed state academic standards, transfer to other public school districts and apply to high school graduation. The documents linked below contain information about online learning programs, student enrollment and certification of public providers.

The Choice is Yours is a special program for families receiving free or reduced lunch benefits in the city of Minneapolis, giving them priority in placement in the schools they choose, whether for magnet programs in the city or schools in the suburbs. For those going to suburban schools the state provides the cost of transportation. The city is split into Northern and Southern sections, with the choice of suburban districts being limited by proximity.

Finally, there is Open Enrollment which
allows all Minnesota’s public school students the opportunity to apply to attend school outside of the school district where they live. More than 30,000 Minnesota students did just that last year.
While in this program parents do not have to pay tuition, they are responsible for providing the transportation for their children.

I contacted Joe Nathan to ask some specific questions, and he was kind enough to respond in detail, and to reach out to people in the State Department of Education to verify the figures. Let me note that his Center for School Change offers a great deal of information at their website, and for those interested in knowing more I encourage you to explore there as well as at the State website.

Let me offer some of Joe's concluding words from one of our earlier exchanges, because I believe this provides some appropriate context (and PSEO = Post Secondary Enrollment Options, which enables secondary students to take college courses on a part- or full-time basis while still enrolled in HS):
The broad coalition that supports the public school choice programs above (plus inclusion of private college and universities in PSEO) has NOT supported vouchers. Moreover, statewide polls show Minnesotans do not support vouchers unless private and parochial schools are open to all, with no admissions tests. Many private and parochial schools in Mn want the power to decide who is admitted. that has helped mean vouchers went no-where.

Public school choice has received strong bi-partisan support here. PSEO,
open enrollment and the charter movement all were first proposed by
Democrats who saw it as expansion of opportunity.

In other words, even though there are SOME aspects of the MN approach that do allow some limited enrollment in non-public schooling situations, the program has been implemented in a fashion that does not move in the direction of privatization of public schooling. As to vouchers, I will reiterate something I have noted on multiple previous occasions: in every case were vouchers have been placed on the ballot for the voters they have been defeated. Those voucher programs which exist have been imposed by legislative bodies without the direct voice of the voters included. MN clearly demonstrates that it is possible to offer a wide variety of options of public school education without resorting to vouchers.

In my examination, I became interested in seeing how widespread participation in the various programs of choice were in Minnesota. Joe Nathan was kind enough to contact a variety of people in the State, and he and I went back and forth several times with the data we were able to obtain. In fairness, since he understands the meaning of the numbers better than I do, I am going to present the numbers by quoting his suggested presentation:

* In 2007-2008 About 145,000 of Minnesota's 836,672 public school students used Minnesota's cross district, public school choice laws
(includes open enrollment, 2nd chance laws, charter law and Post-Secondary Enrollment Options) That's about 17%.

* In addition, Mpls and St. Paul (two different districts) do not assign students to a particular school, k-12. They have dozens of magnets, schools within schools, and other options. Those kids and families are actively selecting from within district options. So if you add the 38,000 from St .Paul and 34,000 from Mpls you are up to more than 210,000 kids. (Again, there is some double counting because of Post-Secondary Options - but that is only 7400 kids. Mpls and ST Paul also have a few thousand kids attending contract alternative schools so that is why I did not add 72,000 and 145,000 call it 217,000). 210/836 is 25%.

* Many other districts including Rochester and Duluth offer schools within schools, magnets and other options. At this point is not possible to figure out exactly how many kids involved.

Beyond the numbers, I raised several other issues about the program in order to understand it better. Joe was kind enough to offer detailed responses to these questions.

I live in Arlington VA which spends more than 19,000 per student. There are other districts nearby which spend substantially less. The district in which I teach, Prince George's County MD, spends significantly less than does the neighboring district of Montgomery County. The differentials come from local taxes. Joe's response on this was
In Minnesota, the state provides more than 2/3 of the funding for the students. So the issue you describe for Maryland and Virginia is less of an issue here. To be fair, in states such as yours, my sense is that all or a portion of local property taxes should follow students.
That is one thing that could represent a stumbling block to expanding the MN approach to other states.

I asked about the chartering of schools, and how that affected their enrollment, given the state's open enrollment approach. Joe responded that
The original charter idea was that the state legislature would give at least one other group the power to authorize, or "charter" groups of educators, parents and others to create new public schools, open to all. Thus, a law such as you have in Virginia that limits this power only to local districts is not really a charter law. In Minnesota, the following groups are allowed to authorize a new chartered school: Local districts, regional groups of districts, higher education institutions, social service agencies or foundations that are registered with the Mn Attorney General and have a bank account of at least $2 million.

Students attending Mn charter schools may move across district lines, just
like students attending district public schools. However, charters may NOT
have any form of admissions tests for their students.

I also asked if receiving schools or districts had any ability to limit the number of students coming in by open enrollment. Joe responded as follows:
The legislation gives receiving districts the ability to limit cross district enrollment, but no specific % is included in the
legislation. So a receiving district has complete flexibility in terms of
numbers of students it can accept, and has complete flexibility at each
grade, and if it has more than one school, at each school. The receiving
district may NOT limit incoming enrollment to just students of one race,
and may not use an admissions test for the school (unless it already uses
an admission test for students in its own district).

I have often written that I believe the entire structure of American public schooling is flawed, and were it up to me I would blow it up and redesign it from the bottom up. Unfortunately that does not seem a viable option. Because of our ongoing responsibility to those currently enrolled in our schools, we have to see what salutary improvements are possible within the reality in which we currently find ourselves. Merely attempting to drive performance by analyzing test scores and graduation rates has not as yet demonstrated that its effects are positive, and in fact may be proving the contrary case.

Further, we know that not all children learn alike, and that parents have different aspirations for how they want their children instructed. Because we know that the education of any child is improved when the parents are involved and committed to that education, involving the parents in the process of selecting the environment in which their children are instructed seems to warrant giving those parents some say in how their children are educated. It is often difficult for one school or even one district to provide the full range of options that parents might seek or students might need. Allowing a wide range of options within a public school framework seems a reasonable method of attempting to meet such aspirations.

I encourage those with interest in educational policy to take the time to explore more completely than I can within this posting the approach that Minnesota is taking. It may not be completely transferable to other states, but there is much than can be learned from their experience, which now extends more than a decade and a half since their implementation of the nation's first charter school program.

I will be interested in your responses to what I have presented. So will Joe Nathan and those people in the Minnesota Department of Education who were kind enough to help me with information: Glory Kibbel, Bondo Nyembwe, Cindy Jackson, and Marceline Dubose. They are rightly proud of what they have accomplished in MN, even as they seek to find better ways to serve the people of their state.


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