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New Ways to Expand Opportunities for Educators, Families, and Students

Joe Nathan replies again today to Deborah Meier.

Deb, in honor of one of President Barack Obama's suggestions in his State of the Union Speech, I'd like to do three things with this week's blog.

a. Respond to some of your points;

b. Suggest ways to expand opportunities for district educators, along with families and students; and

c. Describe another form of school choice that would accomplish what the President proposed, at significantly less cost.

Let's start with the third point, as it builds off the President's suggestion regarding providing up to two free years of community college.  Minnesota has been doing this since 1985.  Specifically, our Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) law has allowed high school juniors and seniors to take classes on college campuses, full or part time, with state funds following them, paying all tuition, book and lab fees.  This includes both two and four year colleges and universities, public and private. More than 150,000 students have used this law in the last 30 years. 

In 2012, the law was expanded to allow 10th graders to take Career/Tech courses on college campuses.  Some PSEO courses are available on line.  Funds are available to help low income students take buses or other transportation to a college campus. 

Admission policies vary from one college and university to another. Some colleges accept only students in the top half or top third of their, some accepting students regardless of class rank or grade point average if they do well on an admission test or have a recommendation from a high school teacher to take a particular class or classes. The law prohibits students from taking a sectarian course, that is a course promoting a specific religion. 

This law has been hugely popular, with more than 60% of Minnesotans endorsing it.  The law was and is the product of support from a broad range of groups, including Minnesota Alternative Programs Association, various organizations representing American Indian, Spanish Speaking, and African American families, more traditional parent groups including the Minnesota PTA, Parents United and liberal "think tanks" like Growth and Justice.  Supporters also included the Minnesota Business Partnership and Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. 

The law would not have passed without leadership from then Governor Rudy Perpich, a Democrat, and House Majority Leader Connie Levi, a Republican.  PSEO had and has broad liberal/conservative and bi-partisan support. 

Partially in response, high schools all over Minnesota have established new dual credit courses.  They include Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Project Lead the Way and collaborative courses with the University of Minnesota or the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System.  In the last year for which we have complete data (2012-13) about 7,000 students have used the PSEO, almost 39,000 students took AP courses, 3,100 took IB courses, and about 23,500 students took courses offered on high school campuses offered in cooperation with a Minnesota college or university.  Several million dollars a year have been available to help high schools either create AP or IB courses, or help pay for the cooperative courses developed with Minnesota colleges and universities.

Hundreds of Minnesota students now have earned AA degrees as they graduated from high school.  We also have many thousands who have earned a year or more of college credit.  More details of this are available on our website.

Preliminary research at the University of Minnesota examined the impact of taking one or more of these dual credit courses.  Researchers studied the records of about 31,000 students.  Among other things, they looked at grade point averages of students in the critical first semester and first year at the University of Minnesota, when many student struggle.  They found that students from low-income families who participated in these courses earned the same grade point in the first semester and first year as more affluent students who had not taken dual credit courses. In other words, taking such courses closed an important gap between low income and more affluent students.

Other research on dual credit is available on our website.  It shows, for example,

* A Texas study finding that students participating in some form of dual credit were twice as likely to graduate from high school, almost twice as likely to enter and almost twice as likely to graduate from some form of one, two or four year program as similar students who had not taken such courses.

* Research showing that males and students from low-income families received significant benefits from participating in these courses.

Having this law has dramatically expanded opportunity for young people, as well as educators.  Many districts have turned to educators and asked them to create AP, IB or concurrent enrollment courses.  While the law is still somewhat controversial, it's very popular with families and students.  Overall it's been a good thing.  I hope policy-makers look at it as they consider President Obama's proposal.

Secondly, let's go back to the terrific programs that allowed you and others to create new district options in East Harlem and Boston.  As you and I have agreed, both educators and students have gained from the East Harlem (district) public school choice program that allowed you to create Central Park East.  Thousands in Boston have benefitted from the Pilot Schools program initially proposed by the Boston Teachers Union.  The Mission Hill school that you helped create is one of these Pilots. These are exciting in-district public school options. 

You and I agreed that it's valuable for urban districts to offer options.  It's helpful for students, families and educators.  We also agreed that policymakers should not allow K-12 public schools to use admissions or audition tests to determine which students are admitted to public schools, though some public schools do this.  Some powerful forces have allowed admissions tests, but we agreed it's wrong.

I think we also agreed on the value of "teacher led" public schools that are emerging around the country.  These schools include parents and sometimes community members on their boards. The majority of board members are teachers who work in the school. Minnesota New Country School, a charter in Henderson Minnesota, was one of the first in the country, if not the first to do this.  Now the idea is being promoted in part by EdVisions, a collaborative of more than 30 such schools. Education Evolving also is helping share ideas about such schools.

As you know, Congress has allocated millions to allow creation of magnet and charter public schools.  How about both Congress and state legislatures allocating funds to help district public school teachers create new options, in addition to the magnet and charter start-up funds currently available?

With the help of some great local teacher union presidents, a group of us are proposing this at the 2015 Minnesota state legislature.  Over the next few columns, I'll provide updates.  I hope you and I can agree that having startup funds is valuable. I hope we can agree that these funds should be available to district public school teachers who have ideas about how to help establish and operate a new (district) public school, open to all kinds of students.

These are examples of what we'll be celebrating in Minnesota as part of National School Choice Week, January 25-31. We'll have youngsters from a variety of public school choice plans describing how having options has helped them.  As mentioned last week, I agree with some but not all forms of school choice.

This leads me to respond to some of the points you made in this week's blog.  You and I agreed on the value of options in urban districts.  But I was surprised to read that you believe in small towns, "everyone should be forced (ugh) to go to school together."

Some of the best public school options are found in rural America.  Sometimes these operate as schools within schools.  For example, in Forest Lake, Minnesota, there are two different elementary options.  One is a Montessori school.  The other is a more traditional self-contained classroom.  International Falls, Minnesota also has offered families two different elementary options within a building.

A second form of rural district school choice involves alternative schools for youngsters with whom traditional secondary schools have not succeeded.  There are marvelous examples of these schools. 

Minnesota law has permitted this since 1987.  That year one youngster explained to legislators that his older brothers and sisters drank, and that the family had quite a reputation at the small town high school.  From the first day he walked in, this youngster recalled that some faculty said something like "Oh we know your family," and it was not a compliment.  This youngster performed to their expectations: badly.
Fortunately there was an alternative school.  He found out about it, did well, and graduated.

A second example involved a talented young woman who was the oldest of a large farm family.  She was on the National Honor Society and cheerleading squad.  Unfortunately her parents were struggling with financial problems and it was not clear if they would be able to keep the farm.  She had enormous responsibilities for her younger brothers and sisters.  She went looking for love beyond the family and unfortunately became pregnant.  She was kicked off the cheerleading squad and removed from the National Honor Society.   She contemplated taking her life.

Fortunately one of her friends told her about an alternative school.  She went there, did wonderfully, had her child and graduated.  She also told her story to state legislators. These examples, and many others, convinced them to permit districts and groups of districts to create these schools in rural, urban and suburban areas.

In additional to schools within schools and alternative schools, there are rural magnets. Sometimes these have been established in small towns that lost their schools to consolidation.  Closing an elementary or secondary school in a small town has a huge, often negative impact on a rural community.  Sometimes consolidation is wise, sometimes not. We could talk more about consolidation if you'd like. 

Another value of rural choice is that it allows families to send youngsters to schools closer to their home. Some large rural districts have schools requiring youngsters to travel 1-2 hours.  Minnesota's law allows students to move across district lines in the receiving district has room. This can save families time and taxpayers money (with reduced transportation costs.

Some of the best public school options in the country are in rural communities.  Some are district, some are charter.

You've asked great questions in your blog, and I responded to some, but not all of them. However, I've probably written enough - perhaps some readers will think too much.  So I'll end with thanks to you, and to the educators, district and charter, who recognize that all youngsters don't learn the same way.  Providing options open to all - including Post Secondary Options - has helped more youngsters succeed.  It's also helped enrich educators' lives.

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