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Bill could allow NorthStar students to earn school credits

Students from NorthStar Christian Academy helped with the ribbon cutting at the open house for the school this past September. (Celeste Edenloff | Echo Press)

ST. PAUL—Public high school students in Minnesota could earn up to one-third of their credits at a private school if a new state Senate bill becomes law.

Supporters of the bill say it would expand options for Minnesota students and their families. Author Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, said the option to take some courses from private schools could help public school districts attract students who would otherwise be homeschooled.

"At the heart of the bill is the ultimate local control," he said. "In my opinion, the ultimate local control is that of the family unit and the personal decision that families make on where to send their children to school."

Jay Jenson, director of NorthStar Christian Academy in Alexandria, testified in support of the bill, calling it a "win-win-win" for students, families and school districts.

"Minnesota has a long history of offering choice and flexibility within the public education system," Jenson said. "Our public schools are stronger and our students are better prepared for life after public education because of the breadth and depth of options students are currently made available."

The academy offers courses specified to high school students who opt for religious release programs.

Current state law allows religious release, or time for students to receive religious instruction outside of school, but the courses can not be credited in public schools.

Opponents are worried the bill could jeopardize graduation standards in Minnesota.

Grace Keliher of the Minnesota School Board Association said public school students could earn up to two years of credit at nonpublic schools under the one-third credit allowance.

"We feel that we would then have to endorse it and hand out a graduation diploma," she said. "One of the best things about being on the school board is handing out those diplomas, but then to not be responsible for what's being taught, you look over the requirements going forward."

Standards for special education and disability accommodations, opponents say, also could fall short of state standards.

NorthStar offers courses specified for religious release, but it does not meet Minnesota's qualifications to be considered a nonpublic school.

If the bill were to pass, Jenson said the academy would make any adjustments necessary to align with the state's standards for nonpublic schools.

Adosh Unni with the state Department of Education was among critics of the bill. He said the law should include more language about nonpublic schools aligning with state standards.

"I think we heard from testimony today that while there is a personal commitment from the school to try to align with state standards for courses they would want to qualify, there's not assurances in the law that any other private school would have to make sure their classes are aligned," he said. "That will have an impact on the quality of the high school diploma that public high schools give out."

Another concern testifiers raised was how nonpublic school time would interact with public school schedules.

Roger Aronson with the School Principals Association said administrators have to consider things like staff numbers when they assign students' course schedules.

Adding nonpublic school courses, he said, could make the process more difficult.

"It's a complex business to figure out how many kids are going into which class so they can meet their graduation requirements," he said.

Eichorn had previously amended the bill's language to specify that only "nonsectarian" private school courses could be included in courses accepted by public schools.

Following the testimonies, the bill was further amended to allow school boards to decide what courses from private schools they would credit towards graduation.

The bill gained unanimous support from committee Republicans Friday.

"We talk about additional options we need, students and parents are looking for it, and I think this brings forth a good idea and suggestion," Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, said. "The negatives and speculation about signing diplomas hasn't happened yet. It's like anything new, we don't know exactly what it's going to look like."

The bill's next stop is a Senate E-12 finance committee.