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Open Competition for Students, Funds : Minnesota Public Schools Add 4th ‘R’--Recruiting

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Times Staff Writer

The latest school catalogue to hit town is as slick as a sales brochure and boastful as a college recruiting pamphlet, promising a rich and stimulating blend of academic and extracurricular choices--day care, international studies programs, vocational training.

The publisher? The local public schools, kindergarten through high school. That is no misprint. The public schools.

Crammed with crafty slogans and eye-catching snapshots of playful and studious youngsters, officials here see the catalogue as a vital sales tool in a brave, uncertain new world of educational competition as Minnesota schools prepare to vie for students under a unique statewide open enrollment scheme.

“I have absolutely no problem saying we market our school district,” said Dave Metzen, the school superintendent in this blue-collar suburb just south of the state capital. “We’re in a service business.”

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The Minnesota plan basically turns the neighborhood school concept on its ear. Though some cities around the country have long had open transfer plans within their school districts, the program here will be the first to extend that “choice” concept to a statewide level when it is fully implemented by the fall of 1990.

The incoming Bush Administration is preparing to encourage the program as a bold stroke that, if copied elsewhere, could force lackluster public schools to innovate and improve or risk losing their two key assets--children to teach and money to teach them with, since most state aid programs are linked to attendance. Legislatures or state education officials in at least 15 states, including California, are considering variations of the Minnesota plan.

Sheer Guesswork

But critics argue that the rosy predictions are sheer guesswork, since only a handful of eligible school age students--435 in the 1988-89 school year--have taken advantage of the open transfer plan. Still, they warn, even small-scale movements could prove fatal to rural school districts with declining enrollments while widening rather than closing the educational gap between schools in poor and affluent communities.

One rural district in the northern Iron Range is already struggling to cope with an anticipated loss next year of one-third of its students and 25% of its revenue base. South of Minneapolis, officials in the adjoining districts of Jordan and Prior Lake have been feuding ever since a Prior Lake neighborhood was papered with promotional flyers for the Jordan schools.

“It may be that you end up creating problems for large numbers of people because you’re serving the concerns of a few individuals,” said Dick Anderson, the executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Assn., which opposed the program when it first passed the state legislature in 1987.

Gov. Rudy Perpich, who championed open enrollment after his own children encountered problems in local schools, said the program would cause headaches for bureaucrats but prove a boon to students.

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“This is probably the most dramatic thing that you can do to improve education in this country,” said Perpich, a Democrat. “ . . . We’re best as Americans when we have market forces at work, when we have that entreprenurial spirit. You’re going to have school districts that are going to go Chapter 11 (bankrupt), I’m convinced of that. They won’t be able to respond. It’s like going from the silents to the talkies.”

Has Been Voluntary

In part, open enrollment participation has been low because only 156 of the state’s 434 school districts are taking part in the program, which has been voluntary for the the last two years. The mandatory phase begins next fall for large school districts and in the 1990-91 school year for all other districts.

There are some loopholes, however. Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth can stop children from leaving schools if court-ordered desegregation guidelines would be upset. No other districts can block an exodus, but any district can close its doors to incoming students as long as it gives a year’s advance notice to state officials. But only two districts have opted out of the program for next year, including Edina, a posh Minneapolis suburb.

Powerful Inducement

A potential cut in state funding could be a powerful inducement for any school district to make changes. While some states rely largely on local taxes to bankroll elementary and secondary education, schools in Minnesota, on average, derive about 60% of their revenue from the state treasury. Each student lost or gained could mean anywhere from $2,500 to $4,000 in revenue to a school district.

To avert such losses, officials in South St. Paul have embarked on an ambitious program to expand course offerings and publicize the schools in order to keep local youngsters from leaving while luring outsiders. The district has organized a marketing committee which produced the flashy school catalogue which is now widely distributed within the city to parents, service groups, fraternal organizations, realtors, doctors and just about anybody else who asks for it. Other promotional materials include place mats which are used in local restaurants.

Paying Off

Such efforts appear to be paying off. Based on transfer notices filed by a state-imposed Jan. 1 cutoff date, some 38 new students may be coming into the district next year while not a single local student has asked to leave. That should translate into an extra $128,000 for the district, about 1% of its annual $13-million budget.

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“A little competition doesn’t hurt,” said Metzen, the South St. Paul superintendent. “If you go to a doctor or get your car fixed, you insist on quality service. Why should we be any different?”

But doubters, including the Minnesota Assn. of Black School Educators, argue that the statewide plan could increase already existing disparities between schools by draining the brightest students and best athletes from small or resource-poor districts.

“My concern is that inner-city schools are going to suffer and schools that serve the poor are going to suffer,” said Theartrice Williams, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of public affairs.

Rural educators have voiced similar concerns about their ability to compete with nearby urban districts which are larger and can afford to offer greater course variety. In one stunning example, more than 300 of the 1,000 students in the rural Mountain Iron-Buhl district have applied to transfer to neighboring Virginia, Minn., schools next year.

“That’ll put us out of business,” said Bob Duncan, the Mountain Iron school superintendent. “ . . . One-third (of the student body) will leave but that jeopardizes the two-thirds still here.”

The mass exodus was triggered by a dispute over a school board decision to consolidate students in two existing high schools into one building on the west side of the district. Most of those leaving live on the east side of the district, nearer the school that is to be closed.

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Indeed, critics of the program argue, most transfers under the program so far have had less to do with academic enrichment and more to do with convenience for the parents. “I would say that 90% . . . are for convenience purposes--child care, day care, (proximity to) place of work,” said August Rivera, an administrator for the Minneapolis schools.

For Mark and Karen Kachel of St. Paul, the main attraction of the South St. Paul schools was a latchkey program that will look after their 6-year-old son Justin, a first-grader, long after school is out. Justin’s mother, a beautician, drives him the five miles to school each morning on her way to work and his father picks the youngster up after completing chores at a family trash hauling business.

“Instead of him going to a baby sitter, he stays right at school,” said Mark Kachel. “If he was up here in St. Paul, I’d have to find someone to take care of him for a couple of hours.”

Not all transfers are away from the big cities. Douglas Burt, a computer systems analyst, lives in suburban Roseville but opted to send Kathleen, his 6-year-old daughter, to a St. Paul school 12 miles from his home that offers a Spanish language immersion course for first graders.

“They’re trained to concentrate a little more and think a little more carefully because they’re having to process everything in another language as they’re learning it,” explained Burt. “ . . . A school district the size of Roseville is pretty much limited to a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Only a large school district could offer a variety of approaches.”

Times researcher Tracy Shryer in Chicago contributed to this story.

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