Educating Minnesota about School Choice

Published November 1, 2004

Tim Sheehy, president of the Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce, believes school choice provides his Wisconsin city with a competitive advantage over other Midwest cities. That’s why, on a recent visit to St. Paul, ostensibly to promote school choice, he joked he’d just as soon the Twin Cities did not adopt a voucher program.

Speaking before an audience of about 85 people, Sheehy discussed the need for business leaders to be engaged in establishing K-12 education policy. During the 1990s, his organization rallied Milwaukee businesses to focus on public education reform as their top priority. The result: The development of one of the nation’s largest and most successful urban school choice programs.

Sheehy was the first speaker in a new series of monthly noon-time meetings in Saint Paul on education reform, sponsored by the Saint Paul-based Partnership for Choice in Education (PCE) and the Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce.

Upcoming series speakers, all from outside Minnesota, include Omar Wasow, president of; Sol Stern, author of Breaking Free: The Imperative of School Choice; Dr. Howard Fuller, founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options; and Rebeca Nieves Huffman, president of the Hispanic Coalition for Reform and Educational Options.

“We hope these fresh voices provoke business people into asking hard questions, and coming up with answers that will take us beyond the gridlock of current discourse,” said PCE Executive Director Elizabeth Mische.

Minnesota and Public School Choice

The North Star State could be fertile ground for an expansion of school choice because Minnesota already has a rich history of giving new educational options to parents. Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school law in 1991 and launched a private school tax credit/deduction program in 1996. Almost a quarter of a million families took advantage of the tax credit/deduction in 2003, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Minnesota’s public school choice programs also are popular. According to a May 2002 study from the Center for School Change in Minneapolis, some 150,000 of the state’s 855,000 K-12 students in 2001-02 were taking advantage of statewide public school choice options. Those options include open enrollment across school district boundaries (28,077 students enrolled), early enrollment of high school students in college classes at school district expense (7,127), alternative schools to give students a “second chance” (100,016), and charter schools (10,206).

When the public school choice programs were proposed, many education organizations warned their passage would result in all kinds of negative consequences–such as destroying programs for the handicapped and cream-skimming. One opponent referred to public school choice as “the biggest boondoggle since New Coke.” However, almost none of the negative predictions came to pass. Even proponents of the plan underestimated just how large the program would become.

“Most stakeholders agree that Minnesota’s school choice options are now widely accepted and have generally had beneficial effects,” note study authors William L. Boyd, Debra Hare, and Joe Nathan.

George A. Clowes ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The May 2002 study from the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, “What Really Happened? Minnesota’s experience with statewide public school choice programs,” by William L. Boyd, Debra Hare, and Joe Nathan, is available online at

Other school choice publications of the Center for School Change are listed at