State legislative committees are considering a bill that would allow students in persistently low performing schools to transfer to another school district or enroll in a private school.
The bill would also provide tuition funding for students choosing non-public schools. The House Education Finance Committee will review the legislation on Friday.
MPR's Morning Edition invited two guests to debate the issue on Thursday. Sen. Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge) authored the Senate version of the bill. Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville) opposes the legislation.
An edited transcript of the conversation is below.
Cathy Wurzer: Senator, I'm going to start with you first. I've been around the Legislature for a while, and you know school vouchers are not a new idea, but Minnesota already has open enrollment, as an example, where parents can send their kids to schools in other districts. Why is your bill needed?
Sen. Sean Nienow: Well, this bill is targeted at schools specifically, well, not to sound too pejorative, but the schools that are failing students, students where a majority of them, or at least half of them, are not meeting various criteria, reading, math, not passing the grad standards, and it's targeted to low-income families. So these are families that really don't have a whole lot of options.
Wurzer: And Representative Greiling, what's your concern with this measure?
Rep. Mindy Greiling: Well, it's not needed. We already have tax credits and deductions based on income in Minnesota. And then, more importantly, I just have always opposed vouchers. I think they weaken the public schools and research shows they don't make a difference anyway. Sometimes kids that go to school with vouchers do worse.
Wurzer: Senator, in tight economic times, should the state spend money subsidizing private schools?
Nienow: The state isn't going to spend any more money. The bill would allow for a family that's in a school that's not going to get them passed, it'd take the money that they're spending on that student already, the average statewide.
Wurzer: The per-pupil funding.
Nienow: Yes, the state money that we pay, it would take the average statewide amount, and let that student take it with them to another school where they presumably will have a better environment that works for them where they can get up to par, pass the MCA (exams), be able to get educated, and graduate.
Greiling: But the private schools, if you're talking SPA (St. Paul Academy), Blake, you know, Breck, schools like that, it's 15 to 20, 25,000 (dollars) a pop. So this wouldn't pay for that. This isn't access to those schools.
Wurzer: And Senator Nienow, under your bill, are all non-public schools included, religious institutions as well?
Nienow: Potentially. They would have to qualify. There's criteria. They have to agree to certain things ... Under the bill as written, they would have to agree to not discriminate on gender and the only preference they can give is for siblings.
And in the private schools, we're not talking about Blake or $15,000 a year schools. Your typical private parochial school is charging tuition less than what we're spending for the average student in the state of Minnesota, so the selection, the array that's available, is going to be broad, at least for those schools that want to opt in to this kind of program.
Wurzer: Because you're talking about parochial schools under this plan, how's that constitutional?
Nienow: We do have a state requirement that you need to segregate any religious instruction, and that has been dealt with in other circumstances. We do that now with other programs, and that can be segregated and kept apart from the regular reading, writing, arithmetic.
Greiling: I personally don't think it should be constitutional, but it has held up in court because the money goes to the kids and not the schools. And I just want to say I think the real issue is the kids who aren't doing well in school. For them, we know, research shows they need more time on task, they need early childhood, they need all-day kindergarten, they need small primary class sizes and so forth.
Vouchers aren't the answer. They have not been proven to work. And those are the very kids vouchers are always saying they're going to help. But who they really help are the middle-class kids, the poor kids who have great families who make these choices. They would do well in the public schools more than likely already anyway. And the kids who are failing are going to continue to fail in even worse public schools if we had vouchers.
Wurzer: A final word here, Senator?
Nienow: The studies that are done where this has taken place on a large scale, Milwaukee, in Florida, the studies show at worst schools weren't harmed. At best, schools and students both did better.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)