Minnesota Implements Choice Innovations

Published October 21, 2009

Teachers in Minnesota have a new opportunity for autonomy as a result of a recently enacted law allowing them to start their own schools. Provisions in the 2009 K-12 public education law allow a school or district to govern itself, choose its own curricula, and have greater flexibility.

“Several organizations, including teachers unions and charter school advocates, support the new law,” said Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota.

The new law is part of the Minnesota’s SF No. 1328, HF No. 2, the K-12 education ominous bill signed into law on May 16 of this year. It was passed in the House 85-49 and in the Senate 37-19. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (R), who has been a strong voice for expanded school choice, supported this provision of the bill, which passed with bipartisan support.

Another Innovation

Having passed the nation’s first charter school law in 1991, Minnesota is no stranger to innovative school choices.

“The state has a tuition tax deduction, it has flexibility in allowing high schoolers to take college courses at both public and sectarian schools, and it allows for cross-district public school choice,” Nathan said. While some have called the new law, “charter light” because the autonomy given to districts is similar to that given charter schools, Nathan strongly disagrees with the label. Instead, he says, “This law was passed with the recognition that there is no single best school for all students.

“One way people have reacted to school choice is to attempt to cap the number of charter schools or restrict funding for capital outlays. But charter schools have expanded,” he continued. “Between the 2001-2002 school year and 2008-2009 school year, almost 50,000 students have left the [regular] district schools. Just in Minneapolis, enrollment in charter schools has increased from around 2,000 to 9,000. This law is a much more constructive response from union leaders and lawmakers seeking to improve education in the state and prevent the continued loss of enrollment.”

Minnesota is following the lead of Boston and New York, which have similar programs in place. Minneapolis is currently planning a teacher-run school, and applications for new school proposals were being accepted through mid-October.

Colorado Experience

Colorado has made innovations along the same lines. Last year the legislature passed the Innovations in School Act of 2008, allowing schools to ask for some of the ordinary requirements to be waived while remaining under their district’s umbrella. The state also has three “innovation schools,” including the Denver Math and Science Leadership Academy, which opened this school year.

“It was proposed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the local branch of the National Education Association,” explained Ben DeGrow, an education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado. “The Leadership Academy receives waivers from the state which allow two ‘lead teachers’ to run the school instead of using the traditional principal model. It also runs on a peer review collaboration system.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.