The Catholic Spirit: Newfound optimism for educational choice in Minnesota

From the mid- to late-20th century, Minnesota was known as a national leader in school choice. During that era, initiatives enacted to support parents of nonpublic school children included equitable pupil transportation, special education, share-time instruction, textbook aid, health services and qualifying education tax credits and subtractions.

Today, Minnesota ranks 17th among school choice states and has the second largest achievement gap for children of color — a precipitous downward spiral for a state once at the top of the educational mountain.

After a promising 2011 regular session, two parental choice bills enacted by the Legislature were vetoed by Gov. Dayton. But recent discussions with lawmakers and other organizations advocating for the expansion of parental choice in education have buoyed optimism that new 2013 choice bills recently introduced in the Legislature will gather momentum.

Backed by research

School choice advocates have been furiously attempting to correct both negative trends by introducing school choice legislation that would provide all children, particularly children of color and children living in poverty, the opportunity to choose a quality educational program in which they can thrive.

One of the largest impediments has been school choice opponents perpetuating the false assertion that parental choice drains funding from public schools and does not produce positive results. Yet, empirical data from scores of research studies indicate the contrary.

On Jan. 31, renowned education researcher, Patrick J. Wolf, a native Minnesotan and now professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, returned to Minnesota to speak during National School Choice Week.

Wolf has conducted extensive research on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program. OSP, according to Wolf, increased the high-school graduation rate of students by 12 percentage points, if they were lucky enough to win the annual scholarship lottery.

Longitudinal data from his studies indicate that students who graduate from high school live longer, healthier and more productive lives than their peers who do not. They make significantly more money and, consequently, pay significantly more taxes, are less likely to commit crimes and are less likely to become a burden on the public. In other words, high-school graduates on average contribute more to society and require less from it than do high-school dropouts.

Wolf’s study combined the increased-graduation results from rigorous government evaluations with the work of labor, health and public-policy economists who have estimated the value of a high-school diploma to get an overall estimate of the impact of the program. Combining the increased income and financial benefits of longevity and quality of life, a high-school diploma is worth almost $350,000 to an individual.

Because a high-school diploma makes an individual less likely to commit crimes, Wolf posits, it decreases both the costs incurred by crime victims and the administrative costs of the criminal justice system. Coupled with the increased tax revenue made on the increased income, it yields an extra benefit for society of over $87,000 per high-school graduate.

Furthermore, multiplying the number of additional graduates by the value of a high-school diploma yields a total benefit of over $183 million. In other words, school choice pays significant dividends to the individual and society.

Church supports parents

In his 1994 “Letter to Families,” Blessed John Paul II said “[F]amilies and those to whom they entrust a share in their educational responsibilities must enjoy true liberty about how their children are to be educated.” The Minnesota Catholic Conference has consistently maintained that all children have the right to a quality education.

As stated by MCC’s current legislative positions, parents are the primary educators of their children and have the right to send their children to the school of their choice, whether public, religious or independent. Social justice further demands that government resources be provided to poor families so that they may choose the educational path best suited to their child’s success. (“Familiaris Consortio,” 36; “Gravissimum Educatonis,” 6)

Join the movement

With three school choice bills already introduced this legislative session, there is hope on the horizon! To continue the positive momentum of these developments, Catholic parents, and everyone who cares about giving all children the best shot in life, must make their voice heard.

Become an active school choice advocate by subscribing to MCC’s Catholic Advocacy Network. Visit the MCC website ( and click on “Join the Network” under the “Take Action” menu tab. Get involved, and help return Minnesota to the top of the school choice movement that is sweeping across the nation.

Peter Noll is the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s education director.

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