Written by Mitch Pearlstein | August 2, 2017

What If Rudy Perpich Were Still Fighting for School Choice?

Leadership makes a difference for better or for worse. American Experiment’s Mitch Pearlstein reflects on what might have been with a landmark school choice bill if Gov. Mark Dayton’s mentor, the late Gov. Rudy Perpich, had still been in charge. This column was published today in the Hibbing Daily Tribune

If only Rudy Perpich were still among us.

A DFLer from Hibbing, Perpich was governor of Minnesota for a record 10 years over two different stretches in the 1970s and 1980s.

He also was the first governor of any state, regardless of party, who pushed through legislation, in his second stint, allowing families to send their children to schools outside of their immediate attendance zones if they thought that doing so was in the best educational interests of their boys and girls.

He also was the first governor anywhere to win legislation allowing parents to send their kids to schools across district lines, often considered then as impregnable as the pre-Reagan and Gorbachev Berlin Wall.

Rudy died of cancer an amazing 22 years ago, in 1995, at a young 67, and I don’t want to speculate or extrapolate too freely after more than two decades. But based, in part, on an exchange we had on a plane when he clearly seemed to be enjoying himself reading an American Experiment publication on the topic, I’m reasonably confident that if he were still alive and active he would be a leader in seeking expanded educational freedom for all students, especially low-income ones.

And given the current lay of Minnesota’s political land, I likewise don’t doubt he might be the only high-profile DFL politician to say good things publicly about an attractive school choice bill that made it through the Legislature this past session. A bill that passed by both chambers, with Republican votes exclusively, only to be stopped within inches of the schoolhouse door, for the second year in a row, by one of Rudy’s then-young staffers, Gov. Mark Dayton (Blake School, circa Class of ‘65).

That legislation, known as the “The Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act,” would have allowed individuals and businesses to receive tax credits for making contributions to certified nonprofit organizations, which would then turn around and provide scholarships to income-qualifying parents to send their sons and daughters to a private school if they thought that would work best for them. The legislation also would have aided public schools, but that got wholly lost in the fact-deprived noise powered principally by the teachers’ union, Education Minnesota.

As students of these things may recall, Education Minnesota is the product of the 1998 merger of the Minnesota Education Association and the Minnesota Federation of Teachers. And as you might imagine both of those unions fought against Rudy’s initiatives, but he won nonetheless, as his mettle in those encounters was steel.

About 17 years ago, I was asked to write a paper about educational reform successes and failures in the state. Eventually titled, “Nothing Plain about These Plains: Minnesota’s Motley Story of School Reform,” it covered the 15 years between 1985 and 2000, and looked at issues such as Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, charter schools, educational tax credits and deductions, something called the “Profile of Learning,” and something called a “Diversity Rule,” in addition to intra- and inter-district choice programs.

The paper’s core, if perhaps self-evident conclusion went like this:

“No institution or individual is more important in the making or breaking of state education policy than governors. More precisely, no one is more important than governors who are engaged.”

Rudy instinctively knew this. And as a Ranger whose family came over on “the boat” as we used to say, he also had a bone-deep commitment to equity.

It was a lifelong devotion that wasn’t going to be denied by a lavishly funded special interest that continues to keep most other Minnesota progressives, of both low and high station, tied up in mute knots.

Mitch Pearlstein,

Founder of Center of the American Experiment and President of Opportunity for All Kids (OAK) based in St. Paul.

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