Is the Choice Is Yours really the right choice for low-income Minneapolis public school kids?

The program sends some 2,000 city students to nine suburban school districts at an annual cost of $7 million. Schools are in the final stages of deciding which city students to accept. Although the goal was to give city kids a better education, recent test scores show that kids who stayed behind are doing as well or better than those who bused out.

"Overall, it's not working," said Minneapolis NAACP president Duane Reed, whose organization's 1995 lawsuit led to the landmark program that's now in its seventh year. "For the number of dollars being spent, I'd love to say that it is, but it isn't." But supporters look at a different statistic: The same report that shows middling test results says that 96 percent of parents would recommend the program to others.

Is that enough to justify funding through 2013, as planned?

"Yes. We strongly support the program," said Assistant Education Commissioner Morgan Brown, who was the state's director of school choice from 2003-06. "It's equal access to choice options."

The Choice Is Yours was part of a 2000 deal with the state to settle the NAACP's lawsuit, which claimed that Minneapolis students were being denied an adequate education.

The state spends more than $4.5 million mostly to provide busing; another $2.5 million comes from federal grants. The program was set to expire in 2005, but state officials decided to keep it going.

Nearly 5,000 students have participated in the program, but turnover is high. More than 62 percent have withdrawn in that time.

The most recent progress report shows that low-income Minneapolis students in district schools last year gained in reading at twice the rate of their counterparts attending suburban schools and finished practically even in math.

Dave Heistad, Minneapolis schools' research and testing director, has concluded that that shows "no difference" in academics for city kids taught in the suburbs.

"I believe that we're not seeing the kind of results the state expected," Heistad said.

It's the second straight year Minneapolis schools have done well. That and other signs of improvement have prompted Minneapolis schools superintendent Bill Green to utter a plea to students and their families: "We want you back."

Jackie Turner, Minneapolis' director of recruitment and community relations, said the district is going to tout its recent gains to city families considering suburban schools.

But state education officials say the academic results are inconclusive. They say the high turnover means that only half of the Choice students in suburban schools were there long enough to post year-over-year results.

"We don't have any firm conclusions that we can draw yet," said Elisabeth Palmer, a researcher who oversaw the most recent Choice is Yours evaluation. "It's a hodge-podge. From a research perspective, it's too soon to tell," she said.

Expand it, Orfield says

If it were up to Myron Orfield, the Choice is Yours would be expanded to more school districts. Orfield is director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty.

Orfield, whose department last year wrote a report on the program, said low-income pupils in racially diverse schools tend to finish high school, graduate from college and land a good job.

Orfield said Minneapolis "isn't a big fan of this program," but there are other detractors.

Opponents of a school tax increase in the Robbinsdale school district last year argued that Minneapolis students attending Robbinsdale Area Schools were lowering the district's quality. Voters defeated the $22.8 million-a-year levy by a vote of 10,733 to 9,660.

Of the 2,080 students in the Choice Is Yours program, about a fourth go to the Robbinsdale Area Schools.

"If the Choice Is Yours went away, that probably wouldn't stop city families from sending their kids to suburban districts [which is] no different than if they chose to send them to a private school or a charter school," said Stephanie Crosby, the district's human resources director. Because of the state's open enrollment policy, Robbinsdale has long had students from surrounding districts, she said.

'It's all been great'

Four years ago, Porsha Brown decided on her own to leave Minneapolis schools for Cooper High School. She even drives a few of her classmates who live nearby to Cooper, some 5 miles away.

Cooper has helped her develop a more diverse mindset, she said.

"I've grown so much. I'm going to miss it here," said Brown. The senior plans to attend Minnesota State-Mankato this fall and major either in business or social science.

"I've never felt like an outsider," said Chris DeGidio, 18, another Cooper senior from Minneapolis. "The interaction, the support. It's all been great."

After graduation, DeGidio will attend Air Force basic training for six months. He has plans to attend college somewhere in Minnesota and major in pre-dentistry.

DeGidio firmly believes that he's received a more challenging and well-rounded education in Robbinsdale than he would have in Minneapolis.

"Some people have options," DeGidio said. "Why not use them?"

Terry Collins • 612-673-1790