Joe Nathan: Why Do K-12 Admins Oppose Free Speech for Colleges?

by Joe Nathan

A group of Minnesota high school and college students are asking for things that apparently are threatening to some school administrators.  Kelly Charpentier-Berg, Aaliyah J Hodge, Sam Petrov, Beisiste Wang, Henry Hoang, Wendy Hughes, Michelle Nguyen, and Cherish Kovaach have been testifying at the state Legislature and (in the case of the high school students) at the Richfield School board.  While the school board didn’t agree with their request, the Minnesota House Education Policy Committee voted overwhelmingly last week to support them.

The students and parents are asking for information and equality.  This came during a recent Senate hearing (pictured above) about two elements of the Post-Secondary Options law – a law that since 1985 has allowed high school students to take courses on college campuses, with state funds following the students, paying their tuition, books and lab fees.   Students, parents and a number of other groups asked for two things:

1. Allowing colleges and universities the same “freedom of speech” that high schools currently have, to tell students they can save money by taking dual (high school/college) credit courses.  Current legislation prevents colleges and universities from saying this.   Imagine – a law says colleges can’t tell students they can save money by participating in a state supported program.

Hodge, a 19-year old from Minneapolis, pictured above testifying in the Senate Education Committee, said she had did not hear about PSEO from people at a suburban high school.  After her mother told her about the program, Hodge earned two years worth of credit.  She’s planning to graduate from the University of Minnesota this spring.

Charpentier-Berg, president of the 120,000 Minnesota College Student Association (which represents students at Minnesota’s two-year public colleges) explained to the Minnesota Senate K-12 education committee that many members of the association were stunned to learn about Minnesota Post-Secondary options only after they graduated from high school.  She pointed out that many schools don’t do a good job of telling young people about this.

Several Richfield High School students mentioned above shared similar problems at Minnesota Senate and House K-12 Education Committees.

Their testimony is affirmed by a Center for School Change review of more than 80 Minnesota high school websites.  We found that as of late January, 2014 more than 90% of the websites did not tell students that 10th graders could participate in PSEO, that transportation funds are available to help students from low income families participate in PSEO, and that some PSEO courses are available on-line.

On a bi-partisan basis, state legislators have proposed bills that would permit this freedom of speech. Authors of these bills include Senators Patricia Torres-Ray (DFL-Minneapolis), Senator Carla Nelson (Republican-Rochester), Senator Melissa Franzen (DFL-Edina) and Representative Linda Slocum (DFL-Richfield), Representative Carlos Mariani (St. Paul), Rep Sondra Erickson (Republican-Princeton), Rep Pam Myrha (Republican Burnsville and David Bly (Democrat, Northfield)

2. Students also are asking for equal treatment when their PSEO courses are ‘weighted” for grade point average.  As students know well, a “gpa” and class rank can have a huge impact on whether students receive a scholarship and in some cases, are admitted to a college or university. Proposed legislation would give high schools and districts two options regarding “weighting” PSEO, Advanced Placement, College in the Schools and other Dual Credit courses.  Districts/high schools could either not weight any of these classes in figuring grade point averages, and ultimately, class rank, or “weight” them equally.

Some Minnesota school districts such as St. Paul Public Schools, “weight” these dual credit courses equally.  Others, like Minneapolis, do not give extra weight to any of these dual credit courses.  Either of those options would be fine under proposed legislation.

But some districts, including Richfield, Farmington, Osseo, and Stillwater, give dual credit courses taught in their high schools greater weight than those taught on a college campus.  This has an impact on a student’s class rank.  And, as the Richfield students pictured above pointed out, a lower class rank reduces their likelihood of earning a scholarship, and in some cases, being admitted to the college/university of their choice.

The Minnesota Association of School Administrators, and the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals opposed both provisions.  They argued that allowing colleges to tell students they could save money would result in public funds being spent on marketing.  However, Center for School Change shared several examples of high schools actively “marketing” their dual credit programs. There’s nothing wrong with telling students they can save money and be better prepared by taking some form of dual (high school/college) credit course, whether it’s AP, IB, or “College in the Schools.

The bills under consideration are supported by a broad array of student, educator and community groups, across the political spectrum.  Support comes from, among other groups, Growth and Justice, Parents United, the African American Leadership Forum, Hector Garcia of the Chicano/Latino Affairs Council, Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs, MinnCan, Minnesota Business Partnership, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and the Center for School Change, where I work.

The bill’s provisions allowing colleges to tell students and families that they can save money by taking PSEO courses was initiated by the 320,000 student members of the Minnesota public 2-year college association, the Minnesota State Colleges Student Association.

Will free speech and equal treatment for students prevail at the legislature?  Too soon to know.  But administrator organizations, which have opposed Post Secondary Enrollment Options since it was proposed in 1985, might want to listen to what the students, parents and community members are saying.  More students taking various forms of Dual Credit can help increase high school and college graduation rates, save families money, reduce college debt and be a big net plus for the state.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, and he can be reached at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.