How to close the achievement gap? Greater school choice

Daniel Webber
Daniel Webber: Great results can come surprisingly cheap.
Courtesy of Institute for Justice

Daniel Webber is a law clerk with the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter.

How much longer must the teachers' union continue to monopolize public funding of education before Gov. Mark Dayton recognizes that the Minneapolis public schools are incapable of giving students--especially low-income minority students--the education they deserve?

Minneapolis public schools lag the state as a whole in performance. In the 2011 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA), 75 percent of students statewide were ranked as proficient in reading and 57 percent were ranked as proficient in math. Among students in the Minneapolis public schools, however, only 56 percent were proficient in reading and a mere 37 percent were proficient in math.

It is appalling that Minneapolis fails to educate nearly two-thirds of its students to levels of proficiency in either subject. But to anyone familiar with the state's well-documented achievement gap, it should not be surprising.

Minneapolis has more students of color than the average district, and the sad fact is that white students outperform students of color statewide. Results from the National Assessment of Education Progress, a test of reading and math periodically given to fourth- and eighth-grade students, have consistently found statistically significant differences in performance between white Minnesotans and all others. Indeed, Minnesota's achievement gap is one of the largest in the nation.

This gap has rightly prompted much debate in the educational establishment, but the debate has yet to yield results. Infusions of money and frequent changes of leadership have failed to solve the problem.

Perhaps the solution lies outside the existing public school system entirely.

Consider Hope Academy, a private, religiously affiliated K-12 school in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. Students admitted to Hope are not selected based on superior results on an entry exam; indeed, many enter its academic program several grade levels behind. The demographics of Hope's student body are similar to those of the surrounding neighborhood — 70 percent live at or near poverty level, and 78 percent are students of color. But unlike their neighbors, Hope students excel academically.

While only 38 percent of students at other neighborhood schools ranked as proficient on the 2011 MCA, 76 percent of Hope students did. In essence, Hope students are twice as likely as their neighbors to be well educated.

Those incredible results come surprisingly cheap. Although Minneapolis spends approximately $20,000 per student every year, Hope spends a mere $7,400 — 37 percent of the cost the public pays for every student in Minneapolis Public Schools. In other words, Hope Academy produces twice the results of public schools for about a third of the money.

Who would pay three times more for something half as good? Apparently, Gov. Dayton wants Minnesota's taxpayers to do just that. Last year, he vetoed legislation that would have provided scholarships for parents to transfer their children from failing schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth to private schools like Hope Academy.

Fortunately, state legislators plan to give the governor another chance to enact real educational reform. Today, legislative leaders will announce plans to reintroduce various school-choice measures to support low-income families who want alternatives to failing schools. This renewed call to action is timely, as parents, students and education advocates nationwide celebrate the second annual National School Choice Week this week.

Minnesota used to be the national leader in school choice. In 1956, Gov. Orville Freeman signed into law tax relief for parents who sent their children to private schools, and Govs. Rudy Perpich and Arne Carlson expanded alternatives to traditional public education in the 1980s and '90s. Nowadays, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Arizona, Louisiana and the District of Columbia lead with more powerful school-choice programs, like opportunity scholarships.

Gov. Dayton's veto deprived low-income students of quality education, cheated taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars, and cost Minnesotans a chance to once again lead the nation in educational innovation.

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