Minnesota Gives Parents Broader Choices in Public Education Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Leading a movement for school choice across the United States, Minnesota lawmakers gave parents the right to send their children to any public school in the state.

Summary of Event

Growing concern over diminishing standards in American public education during the latter decades of the twentieth century led to greater interest and innovation in educational reform. Public schools were run by state departments of education, and the impetus for change most often came from the state or even the local level. Such was the case in the development of options for public school choice in Minnesota from 1985 through 1991. Minnesota, education Schools;choice Education;school choice [kw]Minnesota Gives Parents Broader Choices in Public Education (1985-1991) [kw]Parents Broader Choices in Public Education, Minnesota Gives (1985-1991) [kw]Choices in Public Education, Minnesota Gives Parents Broader (1985-1991) [kw]Public Education, Minnesota Gives Parents Broader Choices in (1985-1991) [kw]Education, Minnesota Gives Parents Broader Choices in Public (1985-1991) Minnesota, education Schools;choice Education;school choice [g]North America;1985-1991: Minnesota Gives Parents Broader Choices in Public Education[05670] [g]United States;1985-1991: Minnesota Gives Parents Broader Choices in Public Education[05670] [c]Education;1985-1991: Minnesota Gives Parents Broader Choices in Public Education[05670] Perpich, Rudy Nelson, Tom Nathan, Joe Peterson, Randy Loritz, Dan Levi, Connie Mammenga, Gene Zohn, Barbara

Traditionally, schoolchildren in the United States have been assigned to schools on the basis of geography, with special permission required for a child to attend a school outside his or her own neighborhood school district; such permission was usually granted only in extraordinary circumstances. As early as 1955, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman Friedman, Milton suggested the development of systems whereby parents and children would be given greater choice among schools. Several school districts in the nation, most notably those in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York City’s East Harlem, initiated choice options in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, with impressive results in student achievement.

Beginning in 1971, school districts in Minneapolis and later St. Paul offered options among different types of schools at the elementary level. During the early 1980’s, to decrease dropout rates, a number of suburban and rural Minnesota districts created wider options for students who were failing in secondary school. In 1985, Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Rudy Perpich, proposed a nine-point program called “Access to Excellence” that included several of the choice options that would be enacted over the following years. This program and Perpich’s strong advocacy of a broader approach to education, with many options, were instrumental in establishing Minnesota as a leader in the movement toward school choice.

Minnesota’s school choice project actually consisted of four separate programs, each with its own objectives and history. The Postsecondary Enrollment Options Act, Postsecondary Enrollment Options Act (Minnesota, 1985) which was enacted in 1985, allowed high school juniors and seniors to take classes at public and private colleges and universities and at state vocational schools at public expense and for credit at both levels. State Senator Tom Nelson, chairman of the finance division of the Minnesota State Senate Education Committee, was instrumental in seeing Perpich’s bill through the senate; in the state’s House of Representatives, Representative Connie Levi, a Republican, crossed party lines to sponsor the legislation. Major lobbying pressure also came from Dan Loritz, a strong Perpich supporter in the Minnesota Department of Education.

In 1987, the state legislature passed acts establishing the High School Graduation Incentives Program High School Graduation Incentives Program (Minnesota) and Area Learning Centers. Area Learning Centers program (Minnesota) The former offered options to students between the ages of twelve and twenty-one who were having difficulty in school and were in danger of dropping out. The incentives program offered them a chance to try a new school or a new district to complete their education. The latter program established nontraditional educational settings that provided year-round schooling. Also in 1987, Minnesota passed a law that required all school districts in the state to decide whether they would allow students to leave their boundaries to attend school in other districts.

The Minnesota program that received the most attention among advocates of school choice was the Open Enrollment Options Act, Open Enrollment Options Act (Minnesota, 1987) the cornerstone of Perpich’s educational initiative. Authored by State Senator Randy Peterson, Nelson’s successor as chairman of the finance division of the Senate Education Committee, the act covered, during the 1989-1990 school year, those school districts with more than one thousand students; it expanded to include all districts in the state the year after. Under the act, almost all of the state’s more than 700,000 public school students had the right to attend any public school in the state. The only exceptions were cases in which the chosen school was not able to accommodate the student and those in which such choices would violate existing racial desegregation guidelines; the latter was an issue primarily in the metropolitan districts of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Duluth.

In the Open Enrollment Program, which was created by the act, state funds followed students to their chosen schools. School districts were given the option to participate, and by 1990 almost all districts had chosen to do so. The law further stipulated that schools could not choose among students according to record or performance. In cases where too many children chose a particular school and all could not be accommodated, a random selection process was utilized.

The Open Enrollment Program manifested Perpich’s desire to bring the forces of free enterprise into the education marketplace, which traditionally had been a controlled state monopoly. Perpich believed that open enrollment, along with the other options available, would improve educational standards, increase competition, enhance parental involvement, empower teachers and administrators, and decrease transfers to private schools. Since 1983, Minnesota had offered parents tax deductions for private school tuition, but the choice options enacted did not involve vouchers applicable to private and parochial institutions, as was the case with a contemporary and well-publicized program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Barbara Zohn, former president of the Minnesota Parent-Teacher Association and later an assistant at the state’s Department of Education, applauded choice as a way of encouraging diversity within schools and across school programs. Many of the proponents of choice argued that students have different educational needs, so allowing each child to attend the school that could best meet his or her needs makes perfect sense. Following passage of the Open Enrollment Options Act, Peterson oversaw the implementation of open enrollment during the 1988-1989 school year.

Throughout the state, an issue in addition to school choice itself was that of how best to inform families, especially those whose primary language was not English, of the options available. In December, 1990, Joe Nathan and Wayne Jennings of the University of Minnesota reported the findings of their study “Access to Opportunity,” in which detailed questionnaires were administered to more than fourteen hundred students in the various programs. The researchers found that students were benefiting in terms of attendance, attitude, and achievement, but they recommended that the state explore more sophisticated means of disseminating information about the programs.

In 1991, continuing the momentum of the school choice movement, Perpich’s successor, Arne Carlson, signed into law the Charter Schools Act, which allowed licensed teachers in Minnesota to create teacher-run, outcome-based schools. Such schools would be deemed public and would be run by the state but would be relatively autonomous.


The various options that constituted Minnesota’s school choice programs had strong impacts on education and educational policy both in Minnesota and nationwide. Implementation of the programs increased public discussion concerning fundamental educational premises and the social ramifications of school choice. The Minnesota Education Association, led by Gene Mammenga, and the Minnesota Federation of Teachers generally opposed the legislation. Many critics believed that parents and students simply would not make wise and well-informed choices. Others argued that increased competition among schools would lead to elitism and segregation and that low-income and minority students would still end up with inferior educations.

Some who argued against school choice feared a period of turmoil marked by school failures and schools’ eventual adoption of superficial advertising techniques. Although critics charged that only a small proportion less than 1 percent of Minnesota students were entering choice programs, proponents argued that the programs would increase awareness and accountability among educators and would promote self-reliance and empowerment among students and parents. However, even many of those who approved of school choice noted that the power of such programs is limited and that educators and parents should not abandon other approaches to providing equitable education for all.

Student participation in Minnesota’s school choice programs increased steadily from the programs’ inception. In the 1989-1990 school year, six thousand students entered the Postsecondary Enrollment Options Program, eighteen hundred entered the High School Graduation Incentives Program, and five thousand chose interdistrict transfers. Many used two or more options simultaneously. These figures do not include the thousands who chose new schools within the same residential districts as their old schools. In rural areas, choice options led administrators to create magnet schools to attract dwindling student populations.

The choice programs enjoyed a good measure of success. Students who otherwise would not have graduated stayed in school or even returned to school under the new options. Few requests for school transfers were turned down for geographic or racial reasons. Authorities and observers did not notice any tendency toward polarization, nor did the politics of school choice immediately grow to include public subsidies for private education, as some had feared. Partially in response to the new programs, from 1985 to 1990 the number of advanced placement courses offered in the state quadrupled, and the number of schools offering dual credit with the University of Minnesota increased from one to twenty-four. Although school choice did not prove to be a panacea, it clearly addressed problems faced by thousands of Minnesota students.

On the national scene, the Minnesota programs were watched closely by state and federal governments and by an educational establishment increasingly interested in public school choice. In 1986, the National Governors Association National Governors Association endorsed public school choice across party lines. Following the lead of Minnesota, other states embarked on choice programs. Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas, Ohio, and Washington were among the most notable of these.

In January of 1989, the outgoing administration of President Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;school choice held the White House Workshop on Choice in Education, White House Workshop on Choice in Education (1989) and in the following months the U.S. Department of Education sponsored five regional conferences on the subject. President George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;school choice immediately embraced choice as a cornerstone of his educational philosophy. Media attention on the issue focused on Minnesota, and public and private agencies began publishing literature on choice, including guidelines, listings, and worksheets. In December of 1990, the U.S. Department of Education opened the Center for Choice in Washington, D.C., to increase public awareness of the school choice issue. Minnesota’s innovative programs can be credited with stimulating the trend toward school choice, an option in education that continued to be debated into the twenty-first century. Minnesota, education Schools;choice Education;school choice

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chubb, John E., and Terry M. Moe. Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1990. Classic study by two political scientists examines the issues confronting American education, including the option of school choice, from the perspectives of economics and political theory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coons, John E., and Stephen D. Sugarman. Education by Choice: The Case for Family Control. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Volume written before the widespread emergence of the school choice movement examines the movement’s philosophical and intellectual origins and underpinnings. Focuses on the legal aspects of school choice, emphasizing the welfare of the child.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Darling-Hammond, Linda, and Sheila Nataraj Kirby. Tuition Tax Deductions and Parent School Choice: A Case Study of Minnesota. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1985. Study of Minnesota parents’ attitudes and behaviors regarding tax deductions for private school tuition predates the emergence of the public school choice movement. Focus on Minnesota gives interesting insights into how income, geography, occupation, family structure, and other variables affect decision making.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lieberman, Myron. Privatization and Educational Choice. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Focuses on the government’s role in education and the various aspects of school voucher plans. Written in the often-technical vernacular of economic theory, but effectively incorporates statistical information and case studies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Public School Choice: Current Issues/Future Prospects. Lancaster, Pa.: Technomic, 1990. Presents a detailed examination of all aspects of the subject of school choice as the issue stood in 1990. Strives to maintain an objective viewpoint and a healthy skepticism in conveying and evaluating the various data and claims at a time when the choice debate was gaining momentum nationwide. Includes appendixes containing practical documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moe, Terry M. Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2001. Discusses the evolution in thought about public education and the funding of private education in the United States. Examination of the issue of school vouchers naturally overlaps with the topic of school choice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nathan, Joe, ed. Public Schools by Choice: Expanding Opportunities for Parents, Students, and Teachers. St. Paul, Minn.: Institute for Learning and Teaching, 1989. Collection of articles by proponents of public school choice, many of whom have been deeply involved in programs in Minnesota, Cambridge, East Harlem, and Milwaukee. Describes several programs in detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rinehart, James R., and Jackson F. Lee, Jr. American Education and the Dynamics of Choice. New York: Praeger, 1991. Probing and theoretical examination of trends in American education, including the movement toward school choice and the dilemmas it presents, by an economist and an educator. Presents the complex material clearly and concisely for the lay reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfe, Alan, ed. School Choice: The Moral Debate. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. Collection of essays from a conference on school choice examines the impacts of school choice, particularly on the disadvantaged. Contributors include education scholars, historians, legal scholars, and philosophers.

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