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Education of a governor

Like the four governors who preceded him, Jesse Ventura has learned the value of providing real school choice.

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There seems to be a pattern here. In talking about Minnesota public schools in the Pioneer Press last week, Gov. Jesse Ventura charged they had become a "classic government monopoly."

The current setup "worked pretty good for a long time," he said. "But as in all government monopolies, eventually they consume themselves in their own way, and that's the way I'm starting to feel about the public school system."

A few days earlier, in Duluth, he said, "I'm shocked to hear myself say this today, but I think perhaps competition is what's needed. We need to make our public schools more competitive." This, he said, didn't "necessarily" mean he was considering vouchers. But "if I don't get some answers," he concluded, "I'd look at opening doors."

What pattern do Jesse's comments keep on track? A perfect trend—stretching from Wendell Anderson in the early 1970s, to Arne Carlson in the late 1990s—in which every Minnesota governor, regardless of party, either entered office, or left it, as a strong supporter of school choice.

Anderson, a DFLer, began his first term by pushing for, and then signing, legislation that gave parents tax credits (not mere deductions) for tuition payments to private, including religious, schools. Judicial rulings in Washington and then St. Paul ended what was, in fact, an inadequately designed program before it got rolling. But the remarkable fact remains that not only did it become law (however briefly), but it would have provided more help, to more children, than almost anything currently on the books anywhere in the country.

Al Quie, a Republican, was preoccupied with other issues during his four years in office, most notably navigating Minnesota through the worst national recession since the Great Depression. Yet while he did not have the chance to go to the Legislature with a school choice plan of his own, he did invite one of the country's most important choice advocates to speak to a large public meeting in St. Paul. Yes, it drove some of his critics nuts.

Then there was the late Rudy Perpich, a DFLer, whose legacy includes the nation's first open-enrollment law. If Rudy had lived, there isn't the smallest doubt that he would be one of the most important voices in the United States today on behalf of giving parents wide-reaching freedom in picking the very best educational opportunity for their children, be it a public, private or parochial school.

That's exactly the kind of freedom Carlson, a Republican, sought in a brave campaign during the 1997 legislative session. Thanks to his leadership, Minnesota became the first state (in the current "school choice" era) to provide families with education tax credits for certain non-tuition expenses. If Carlson had had his way, the law would have afforded credits for tuition as well, but on this point, the Minnesota Senate (run by folks in the other party) wouldn't budge.

Why has each Minnesota governor over the last 30 years become a fan of school choice of one kind or another? Each has had his own reasons.

Carlson's passion, for example, when it comes to the subject is poor kids. I've never heard him give a speech about choice in which he hasn't talked about how the only firewall standing between large numbers of children and "ash heaps" is better and more fitting schools.

He also has spoken (very much in keeping with Ventura's current frustrations) about the system's "built-in growth factor." It's not uncommon, he has said, for "school boards petrified by teacher strikes to agree to salary settlements they cannot afford and then to go to the Legislature and say, "Either you give us X number of additional dollars or we're going to have to cut kindergarten, sports and so on."

At the risk of presumption, I've argued ever since Ventura was elected in 1998 that it was only a matter of time before his strong appreciation of competition, accountability and freedom—reinforced by the inherent aggravations of managing public education in Minnesota—would lead him to where every one of his last four predecessors landed for one reason or the other.

Frankly, he has proven more long-suffering—more willing to give education leaders the benefit of multiple doubts—than I thought he would. But it's good to see that even a laid-back and patient man like him is not without limits when it comes to the best interests of children and their taxpaying parents, and that he may be reconsidering his earlier opposition to real school choice.

Thank you, sir.

Mitch Pearlstein, a former Pioneer Press editorial writer, is president of Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank in Minneapolis. He is also chairman of the St. Paul-based Partnership for Choice in Education.

This commentary originally appeared in the Pioneer Press on February 12, 2002.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted.

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