School choice wins at MN state fair

Minnesotans who participated in the 2021 House of Representatives State Fair Poll support funding students over systems.

Polltakers were asked: “Should a school voucher system be established whereby the state issues parents a voucher equal to the state’s cost of educating a child for a year, and parents can then choose the school their child attends, whether public or private?”

Even with the use of the politically loaded word “voucher,” respondents favored the school choice proposal 46.2 percent to 40 percent.

DFL leadership and Education Minnesota, the teachers’ union, have opposed efforts to expand educational opportunity in Minnesota and help families access alternative school options for years, even though many of the families asking for more school choice are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Most recently, the Minnesota Senate’s education omnibus bill from this past legislative session included an Education Savings Account (ESA) provision that would have given families more control and flexibility over their children’s education and would have finally brought real school choice to the state. Through ESAs, the kids in low-performing public school districts and those limited to a distance or hybrid learning model would have access to a different school or a variety of other educational services — such as tutoring or supplemental curriculum, mental health treatment, or special education services and therapy, to name a few. (You can read about the differences between vouchers and ESAs here.)

But DFL legislators and Gov. Tim Walz sided with the status quo, and the provision was not part of the final bill. Parents, education advocates and even students themselves urged state leaders to stand up for all students by expanding school choice through ESAs, but it was an uphill battle to even get their attention.

study from the University of Arkansas suggests that “the more a state provides parents with the freedom to choose their child’s school, the better the state’s students score” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), writes co-author Patrick Wolf.

Minnesota’s performance on reading and math NAEP tests has been less than impressive over the years, with states like Mississippi and Texas spending thousands of dollars less per student compared to Minnesota and helping their students of color grow academically.

The state must pursue solutions outside of the education “reforms” that have been tried ad nauseam — solutions that include expanding the school choice continuum and learning from other states that have proved how money is spent matters far greater than how much is spent. Until then, we will not make meaningful progress in boosting academic outcomes and setting students up for success.