Retain, don’t restrict families’ choice in public education


Have you done any of the following recently? Checked your bank account online, read a newspaper with color pictures, watched a favorite television program, used a cell phone, used an online news source (like this one) or thought about which candidate you prefer for Minnesota governor?

If yes, you are enjoying and using American opportunities of freedom, choice and competition. How would you feel about legislators deciding that you could not do any of these things?

I ask because restricting and reducing family’s freedom and educational choices will be discussed at the Minnesota Legislature in 2010. We should not do it.

Freedom, choice and competition are among the country’s great strengths and central values. Despite our problems, we remain a place where millions of people look to for ideas and leadership. Our freedom produces constantly create new products and services.

Since 1985, Minnesota has included these ideas in public education. We started with Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) in 1985. More than 110,000 students have used this. More than 85 percent of participants our organization surveyed said if they had the PSEO choice again, they would take it.

Equally important, PSEO helped improve district high schools. More than half of public school principals responding to a survey by the Legislative Auditor acknowledged that they were not great fans of PSEO, but that it had increased communication between high schools and colleges. Equally important, many urban, suburban and rural Minnesota high schools have created new College in the Schools, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and “Project Lead the Way” courses to compete with PSEO.

The Minnesota School Boards Association and state teachers unions opposed PSEO. Some school districts still try to discourage students from participating. The wiser response is to strengthen district schools. Many have done that.

Building on PSEO’s success, on a bipartisan basis, legislators approved Area Learning Centers, open enrollment, chartered public schools and most recently, site-governed schools. Each has been a step forward for Minnesota youngsters. Each has provided important new opportunities for educators. Why?

Because the wisest districts (and there are many) used freedom and opportunity to improve their programs, and to offer new options within their buildings.

That’s what newspapers did when USA Today began to print color pictures. Other newspapers followed. That’s what banks did when a few offered online banking. They responded to competition by improving what they were doing.

Some education groups already are calling for a moratorium on chartered public schools in Minnesota. Ironically, one of the few things that Sen. John McCain and (then) Sen. Barack Obama agreed on in their debates was the value of expanding the number of charter public schools, including replicating the best ones.

We’re starting to replicate the best in Minnesota. That should continue.

Some charters have made mistakes. About 30 of the 180 that were started have been closed. Just as we monitor and regulate corporate competition, we should do the same in education. But that should not mean no more chartered public schools in Minnesota.

Instead, legislators should encourage and assist charters and traditional districts in refining and improving their programs. That’s how Americans have wisely dealt with freedom: by encouraging, monitoring, refining and expanding it.