Choice on the horizon?

Stars begins to align for real educational choice.

A minister, a rabbi, and a Catholic bigwig walk into a bar — no, make that a joint session of the Minnesota Legislature — and vow a new day is about to arrive for thousands of Minnesota parents who believe their children would do better in schools that more closely fit their academic and social needs and better reflect their families’ deepest values.

At which point Senators and Representatives, regardless of political denomination, rise as one and push green voting buttons in unison, thereby passing Minnesota’s first consequential school choice bill in decades, and send it on to the governor, who enthusiastically signs it to shouts of “Amen” in a chorus of harmonious languages.

A dream? Yeah, probably. But various stars are, in fact, aligning better than they have in a long time, potentially leading to Minnesota parents finally taking advantage of real educational choice. By “real,” I mean the kinds of opportunities that include private schools. The kinds, more specifically, in which parents across the country are increasingly taking satisfaction and comfort, and in which their children are learning more and graduating at higher rates.

The aforementioned minister, rabbi, and Catholic leader, along with a couple of lawyers among other members, are all directors of Opportunity for All Kids, or “OAK,” a new Minnesota school choice coalition of which I’m proud to be president. Do we believe the time is right, after a long hiatus, for Minnesota to once again be a national leader in expanding educational opportunities for all students? You betcha, though I would risk multiple excommunications if I revealed, before the Legislature reconvenes in March, strategic details as to why this is the encouraging case. But suffice it to say I’m more optimistic — carefully so — than I’ve been in a long time.

For now, let me just cite three bills that were introduced during the legislative session that ended this past May. Each and every one, if passed next year, would provide vital financial help to strapped parents while helping their sometimes struggling children both academically and socially. More broadly, each one would add competition to an education system that has too little of it, as all major Minnesota choice programs exclude private schools.

One bill would provide tax credits to individuals and businesses that make contributions to certified nonprofit organizations which, in turn, would give scholarships to low-income students.

A second bill would add tuition as an eligible expense to the 1997 educational tax credit program. It also would update inflation-eroded income thresholds and benefits.

And a third bill would create educational savings accounts so that parents could take best possible advantage of educational opportunities and services for their children with disabilities, be those opportunities and services public or private.

It’s always worth recalling how Minnesota was the first state in the nation with Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO). The first state with intra-district choice. The first state with inter-district choice. The first state with charter schools. And the first state with tax credits for certain education expenses, as noted above. But all these advances became law a long time ago, under Governors Rudy Perpich, a DFLer, and Arne Carlson, a Republican. It’s time to ring some school bells again.