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The Underappreciated Possibilities of Private School Options

When I think about influential education reformers over the last half-century – especially scholars and practitioners who have been creatively consequential over the entire period – Ted Kolderie is a lead member of a quite exclusive national class.  When it comes to Minnesota, I can’t of anyone who matches his contribution.

Among other careers and assignments, he has served as executive director of the Citizens League; a reporter and editorial writer for the old Minneapolis Star and Tribune; a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs; a principal of the Center for Policy Design, a founder of EducationEvolving; and he’s been a prolific author throughout.  A serious man, I haven’t worked with him a great deal, though when I have one of my secret ambitions each time has been to get him to giggle.  I’ll keep trying.

I mention all this as I just caught up with a recent report of his whose first sentence reads: “This paper makes a surprising assertion . . . that Minnesota’s redesign of public education is close to creating a set of options for students broad enough that each truly can get the education s/he wants and needs.”  (Ellipsis in the original.)

I do believe Ted has been hands-on with each innovation, and I’m more than happy to acknowledge their value; often huge value.  Still, I would be happier if his new report recognized the essential options afforded by independent schools and the potential contributions of private school choice.  Omissions like this are routine in education conversations in this state.  By “independent” education, the reference is to “private,” including “religious” schools.

What exactly are some of the innovations Ted rightly cites approvingly?  “To understand what has appeared in Minnesota,” he writes, “we need to look at the range of offerings and options that now make up the quite large and diverse state system of public education – with some of the options of course containing multiple options themselves.”  He notes that a former state commissioner of education, Bob Wedl, believes Minnesota (in Ted’s words) “has more ways for a young person to get a secondary education than in any other place in the world.”  The roster includes:

  • “Resident district” possibilities such as International Baccalaureate programs, Advanced Placement programs, and “College in the Schools.”
  • “Alternative schools” for students “not doing well in regular school.” These routes “are widely used for, vocational-technical careers as well as for academic studies.”
  • “Post-Secondary Enrollment Options” (PSEO) in which high school students can take college courses at government expense, making it possible to “compress eight years of education into six.”  Or, financially speaking, “providing two years of college free to the student using money already in the system.”  (Italics in the original.)
  • “Inter-district choice programs,” which tore down attendance boundaries starting in the 1980s, formerly known as the “Berlin Walls” of public education.
  • There are more examples, but let’s finish off with “charter schools” (“chartered schools,” as Ted more accurately puts it). They currently enroll about 13,000 students living in Minneapolis, and almost 12,000 living in St. Paul.  Mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters voting determinably with their feet, with minority and low-income parents across the nation responding in polls even more enthusiastically than other parents.

This is an impressive litany.  Minnesotans should be proud.  But is it not clear that many young people require something different still, and that their parents know it and want them to have it?  Is it also not clear that achievement gaps in the Twin Cities between students of color and white students remain among the biggest in the United States?  Getting to the heart, is it not likewise clear that more than a half-century of research, going back to James Coleman’s massive study of unequal educational opportunity, has documented how large numbers of American kids – very much including low-income and minority children – do best in private and religious schools?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

For compelling empirical evidence on the worth of private school choice go to distinguished research institutions such as:

For promising news regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s agreeing, just last week, to hear a pivotal school choice case from Montana, go to:

  • Institute for Justice: IJ.org

And for information on how to keep making progress in Minnesota, as trying as the road sometimes is, go to:

Educational options are vital, clearly.  Strange, though, that Minnesota doesn’t take greater advantage of schools that epitomize educational freedom.

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