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GOP governor hopeful Downey pushes for school vouchers

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Updated 12:37 p.m. | Posted 11:09 a.m.

Keith Downey, a Republican candidate for Minnesota governor, released an education plan Tuesday that would use public money to finance private school vouchers. He also said he would shutter public schools with performance problems.

Downey promised to push for legislation within 45 days as Minnesota governor to enact those ideas. The former legislator and past state Republican Party chair is among several contenders for the 2018 GOP nomination.

Republicans have tried for years to allow parents to peel off tax dollars for their children that otherwise would go to public schools. But those attempts have largely been tripped up. Most times, legislative sponsors have avoided describing the carve-outs as "vouchers," opting instead to call them "opportunity scholarships."

Minnesota has limited tax credits for certain education expenses that are short of the voucher-style plan that many school choice advocates want.

Downey said he won't tiptoe around his goal.

"Often times choice options get muddled together so I'm using the word voucher to very clearly connote that people can use these to go to private and parochial schools as well," he said. "The word was intentionally chosen to make sure there was no confusion about the choice option and to also convey the value of having those schools develop in their neighborhoods as compared to asking them to take their children outside their communities and outside their neighborhood to get a decent education."

Downey said too many tax dollars go to public schools that fail to show adequate improvement. He wants the state to have a "much shorter fuse" before restructuring or closing those struggling schools.

"We can't live for five, 10 years while looking at a school that is failing its kids and thinking about what to do. We need to have a bias for action," Downey said, adding, "We cannot continue year after year after year to pump money into them and in fact under what's happening right now to give more money to schools that are failing."

His ideas drew quick criticism from the state's teachers union.

Downey is "promising to transfer millions of dollars of the taxpayer’s money to unaccountable private and parochial schools which can, and do, discriminate against students on the margins," Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in a statement, adding, "his plan is not only bad for public schools; it also violates our state constitution.”

Downey did not provide information on the potential size of the voucher. His proposal, though, goes further than those laid out so far by fellow Republicans.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the party's 2014 nominee who is taking a second shot at the governor's office, says on his website he would seek to undo some state requirements on school districts and "do everything possible to allow real education choice for every parent in Minnesota."

State Rep. Matt Dean, state Sen. David Osmek and former Naval officer Phillip Parrish don't include specific education initiatives as part of their campaign website issue platforms.