'School Choice' Moves Ahead Despite Lack of Public Funds

New sources tapped so poor families can afford private education

In cities across the nation, private corporations, foundations, and citizens are jumping in to help poor families foot the bill to send their children to private schools.

The giving is an attempt to advance the school-choice movement, which advocates giving families public money (in the form of vouchers) and allowing students to attend the public or private school of choice. It is also a reaction to what voucher advocates see as foot-dragging by state legislatures across the US, which have generally spurned efforts to use taxpayer dollars for voucher systems.

To date, school-choice supporters have found private funding for more than 20 voucher experiments from Los Angeles to Washington. Through contributions of more than $30 million since 1991, about 10,000 poor children have received tuition grants for private schools.

"Many of the people who have started these programs have thrown up their arms because they haven't been able to get anything done in their state legislatures with regard to public vouchers," says Fritz Steiger, president of CEO America, an information clearinghouse on the private-voucher movement. "So they put their money where their mouth is and start privately funded voucher programs."

While many investors consider it a charitable cause, most of them view their contributions as an opportunity to prove that vouchers offer promise for reforming America's education system. Increased competition via school choice is the best hope for improving failing public schools, they argue.

Critics say the millions of dollars being invested in these school-choice experiments would be better spent in the public schools. But voucher supporters are seizing an opportunity to prove that poor parents want increased choice.

Of the two-dozen private-voucher programs today, most serve fewer than 200 students. The largest programs are in Indianapolis (1,082 students), San Antonio (1,000 students), and Milwaukee (4,630 students).

Milwaukee also has the nation's only publicly funded voucher program. Yet the privately funded Milwaukee program, Parents Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), serves three times as many students as the public program there.

When the public program got caught up in the courts last year over its expansion to include religious schools, PAVE stepped in to fill the funding void for parents who had signed up their children at parochial schools. Within two weeks, PAVE raised $1.8 million for 1,000 students

The first voucher program to be privately funded was established in Indianapolis in 1991 by J. Patrick Rooney, chief executive officer of Golden Rule Insurance Co. After the defeat of a voucher proposal in the Indiana state legislature, Mr. Rooney created a foundation to provide financial assistance to Indianapolis families interested in enrolling their children in private schools.

Since then, citizens in 23 other cities have replicated Rooney's program. All private-voucher programs target low-income families and pay half a student's annual tuition. "It's up to parents to work out their half of it," says Mr. Steiger. "It's a sacrifice, but they can get very creative in coming up with ways to make their half of the payment."

Demand has far outstripped the supply of donor dollars in every city. Waiting lists of students often dwarf the list of enrollees.

"These programs are demonstrating that poor people want vouchers, that they use them, and that they benefit from them," says Terry Moe, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif., and editor of a new book on private vouchers.

"There's this stereotype that school choice is a conspiracy of the rich, and it's the well-to-do who favor vouchers," Mr. Moe says. "But exactly the opposite is true. ... Well-to-do people already have choice because they have money. It's poor people who don't have choice that now want it because they are trapped in bad circumstances."

Critics argue that "skimming" off the more motivated students only exacerbates social inequities. "The kids who are achieving at lower levels are becoming even more isolated if you're yanking the higher achievers out of the poor neighborhood schools," says education professor Bruce Fuller of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Early studies of private-voucher programs show that the parents who participate are better educated and have higher expectations for their children than other poor parents. "As might be expected, they are better shoppers," Mr. Fuller says.

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