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Best Serving the Interests of Students, Not the Bureaucratic Convenience of Grown-Ups

My American Experiment colleague Catrin Thorman was on-target when she concluded her recent blog about a three-part series in the Star Tribune regarding public school choice in the Twin Cities.  “The pressures school choice is putting on Minnesota public schools,” she wrote, “is not a bad thing.  It creates a competitive environment that pushes low-performing districts to improve so they keep and attract students who have the chance to go elsewhere.  Educational freedom means families – not zip codes – choose where their children attend school.”

A couple of complementary points, if I might.

Just in case a younger generation of critics assumes that the complexities facing superintendents posed by mobile students are the products of right-wing plots, please note that a string of open enrollment breakthroughs were led by Gov. Rudy Perpich, very much a DFLer, in the latter half of the 1980s.  Before Perpich’s great work, school attendance zones were regularly referred to as the “Berlin Walls” of K-12 education.  Thanks to Perpich and others, those walls came tumbling down, just like Gorbachev and Reagan knocked the brick and stuffing out of the one running down Germany’s spine.

In fairness, and as someone who has worked for the president of two public universities, I recognize that educational institutions can have an extra-hard job excelling unless they can count on reasonably stable funding; dollars not overly tied to how many young people they attract in any given year.   But at the same time, and the point is decisive, the fundamental aim of public education is to best serve the interests of students, not the bureaucratic convenience of grown-ups.

A final point about what was missing from an otherwise strong series.  The paper defined school choice as essentially limited to charters schools and what might be called “out-of-district district schools.”  Glaring by its absence was any mention of “independent schools” or “non-government schools,” also known as “private schools,” be they religiously flavored or not.

I recognize, of course, that the metaphoric wall when discussing more substantial educational freedom is a Rubicon for many.  But if one starts from the premise that teacher unions and holders of other holey arguments should not be allowed to abridge a mother and father’s options for their children, and that research is clear that many low-income and minority students simply do better in private schools, perhaps future three-part series in the Strib will have a fourth.

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