Thursday, February 03, 2005

Parents, students deserve every chance for success

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:30 PM |  

One of my frustrations with Republicans is their reluctance to address minority audiences with a conservative message. It’s as if even they believe the picture that liberals have painted of them as closet bigots who feed their dogs with scraps of food stolen from the plates of orphans.

Hopefully at least a couple of Republican lawmakers got the message loud and clear that a good portion of the minority community doesn’t give a damn about party labels or political philosophy when legislation is presented that really works to their benefit -- actually intends to empower not pander.

Republicans State Senator David Hann and State Representative Mark Buesgens today introduced legislation to allow low-income families in the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts to apply for education access grants to send a child to any accredited, non-public Minnesota school of their choice. Think vouchers, think private or religious school.

During the question and answer session following presentation of the legislation, a young Afro-American mother rose to praise Hann and Buesgens for introducing the legislation. With a passion and animation reminiscent civil rights era fire of her parent’s and grandparent’s generations, this North Minneapolis mom in no uncertain terms told the two Republicans that they had the support of her community, across party lines, across racial lines. She wanted parents in her community to have the opportunity to secure the best education for her children.

A great message for Republicans to hear. Let’s face it. Hann (right) and Buesgens (left) do look like a couple of guys who can’t keep the rhythm when clapping to gospel music. But to this mom it didn’t matter. She is right, wanting a good education for your kids crosses racial lines and income lines. And providing the opportunity for that kind of education to people of all income levels is exactly what the Hann/Buesgens bill initiates.

From the press release --
The education access grant program closely resembles Minnesota’s higher education financial assistance program for college students and the state’s child care financial assistance program for families that meet income guidelines. Minneapolis and St. Paul families with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible for the grants.

A family’s grant, per student, would equal the lesser of the actual cost of tuition and fees or the “formula allowance” amount that is used for all public school students, set at $4,601 under current law.

The access grants could be used at any accredited Minnesota non-public elementary or secondary school. The actual payment would be considered financial aid solely to the family and would be in the form of a check that must be restrictively endorsed by the parent of the student.

The state Department of Education would process program applications, oversee and process documentation from the family to ensure program integrity, and establish a payment schedule. The number of approved applications could not exceed ten percent of the public school district enrollment from the prior year. This cap would increase by five percent in each of the following five years, then eliminated be eliminated.

Students enrolled in the program would participate in all of the required statewide tests. Individual results would be reported to the family and the school providing instruction, and aggregate results would be made available to the public.

To lessen financial pressure on school districts, the legislation would permit districts with a student enrolled in the program to count that student for up to three years for purposes of generating revenue from applicable funding formulas, less the amount of the access grant.

One hundred percent of this residual funding would stay with the district in the first year, two thirds of the funding would remain in the second, and one third in the third year.
[Note that this last provision ensures that as students opt out of a district school, the district is ensured higher per-pupil funding as overhead costs budgeted for departing students remains with the districts.]

Although I am a tax credit guy, this program is a great start for K-12 school choice, and my only criticism is that in some ways it is too tepid. First, it is limited to students in the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts. Second, Families that might qualify for an access grant based on the program means test, but who have made sacrifices and already have their kids in private schools, will not qualify for the program.

The rationale is that the narrow geography provides a test bed for the program; excluding families that “have found a way” to attend private school preserves budget integrity. The reality is political, although as Hamm hints, he would not be opposed to amendments that expand the scope.

Although expected opposition from Education Minnesota and School Administration will fight the bill, there just might be more of a groundswell of public support than people expect -- especially if the North Minneapolis mom is an indication.

Hann responded to her remarks by saying that he was willing to speak to any group on behalf of this legislation. Let’s hpe that he means he’s actively going to seek out those groups and not wait for them to come to him. That initiative by a Republican to reach out to the minority communities -- not just Afro-American, but Hispanic and Hmong -- would reap benefits to the party and the people well beyond passage of the Education Access legislation.

UPDATE: Star Tribune article; Pioneer Press article

UPDATE: Pioneer Press updated story.

The Pioneer Press article concludes with this Pat Harvey quote --
"I think the founders of this country had it right in creating public schools to level the playing field for all children."
Alas, the founders are finally given credit for something other than slavery, genocide and destroying the environment, and it's wrong.

Schools in the Revolutionary era were "public" in the sense they were funded by local comunities, but in essense they were religious schools reflecting the orthodoxy of the funding communities. "Public school" as we know it -- government-funded schools -- is a Progressive Era innovation, primarily a Protestant movement that was a response to and a way to preserve Protestant values in the wake of the wave of immigrants flooding into the country many of whom were Irish Catholics.

By the way, that bit of history is not intended to denegrate the very positive affect of public education. There is really no need to distort history to make the point that in today's world, a single-source government run system alone is not adequate to meet the educational needs of all children, hence the need for school choice.

What is really disturbing about Superintentent Harvey's words is not that the superintendent of schools has such little knowledge of the history of her profession or that she is willing to distort it for political purposes, it is that her goal is a "level" playing field, yet she refuses to acknowledge that the Education Access bill provides opportunity for low-income families to particiapte in the game and pursue excellence.

It seems her idea of a "level" playing field is the enforced mediocrity of a single-source government education.