Thursday, March 17, 2011

Now in the Senate. As I stated in the last post, the Senate Education Committee is considering Senator Nienow's SF 388, a bill that would allow students below 175% of the poverty level in a low-performing school the opportunity to attend a private school through a scholarship program. We are hearing from all the usual suspects on the predictable sides of the issues. Many reformers see this as a vital option that needs to be added to the array of choices currently available--charter schools, PSEO, area learning centers and alternative programs--for students in low-performing schools. On the other hand, most public school interests view this as an erosion of the public school community through the siphoning off of students.

Those testifying in favor of the bill today include Jim Bartholomew from the Minnesota Business Partnership, Dr. Karen Effrem from Education Liberty Watch, and Tom Pritchard, Executive Director of the Minnesota Family Council. Mr. Bartholomew's testimony centered on Minnesota's achievement gap and highlighted studies that students in both the public school from which the students transferred and the private school to which they transferred showed gains in states where a low-income scholarship exists. Dr. Effrem's and Mr. Pritchard's testimony zeroed in on parent empowerment, which they see as being enhanced with this bill.

Minneapolis Public Schools lobbyist Jim Grathwol testified against the bill and he accurately summed up concerns from the public school community. All of us (AMSD, MASA, Minneapolis Public Schools, the ACLU, and SEE) testified against the bill during the House proceedings on a number of grounds. SEE has had a long-standing position against the use of public dollars for private education (I can show anyone who is interested the organization's platforms from the early 1980s showing this opposition) and most public school interests question the constitutionality of this proposal. In his testimony, Senator Nienow indicated that he believes previous case law in Minnesota and elsewhere would hold this proposal to be constitutional. For my part, I think there are some differences between the tuition tax credit, the education tax credit, and the other means of state financial support to private education in Minnesota and a lawsuit would likely result if this proposal were to pass and be signed into law. It is interesting to note that Florida, as part of its massive overhaul of its public education system beginning under former Governor Jeb Bush, passed a provision similar to the one in SF 388/HF 273. It was subsequently ruled unconstitutional in 2004.

There are some differences in HF 273 and SF 388. When HF 273 was discussed in the House Education Committee, several amendments were added to the bill. Among them are an amendment that requires any private schools accepting eligible low-income students to develop an anti-bullying and harassment policy and another that requires these schools to administer either the statewide reading or mathematics test or a nationally-normed standardized achievement test to its students.

This is a good and necessary discussion; one we seem to have one or twice every decade. There is no question the achievement gap is real, significant, and needs to be addressed. I just wonder if this is the right avenue, both in terms of constitutionality and cost-effectiveness.

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