Alphonso Harrell is Exhibit A in the latest school-choice debate. As a third-grader, he was one of 1,100 Indianapolis students to win a $900 scholarship to offset the costs of attending another school. He says the choice changed his life.
"I couldn't learn in my old school because I had to watch out who I was talking to. They all wanted to fight," he says.
"My son would have been lost" if vouchers had not come to the rescue, his mother, Barbara Lewis, tearfully told a press briefing as she stood flanked by top Republican leaders in the Capitol last week. "He used to be excited about learning, but he kept getting hurt at school."
Alphonso is one of some 14,000 students nationwide who have used scholarships, or vouchers, to opt out of broken public schools. Most scholarships have been privately funded by business and civic groups. Some 40,000 students remain on waiting lists for a voucher.
Americans have come reluctantly to the idea of committing public funds to school choice. Voters have repeatedly rejected voucher proposals, worried that public schools would decline further. Courts, concerned about church-state issues, have been wary of allowing tax dollars to go to religious schools.
But an unlikely coalition of business groups, the religious right, Roman Catholics, and the urban poor is pushing school choice to the top of the political agenda. They are proposing new tax credits and deductions for K-12 expenses, including private-school tuition.
Their momentum could set the battle lines for the 1998 midterm elections. And Republican strategists say the newest members of the coalition - blacks, who have traditionally opposed public funds for private schools - could drive a wedge between teachers and urban minorities, who have been key Democratic supporters.
"This is truly the civil rights battle of the '90s. How long? How long before we empower parents to send kids to quality schools?" asks Alveda King, echoing the civil rights rallying cry of her uncle, Martin Luther King Jr.
"We're the underground railway conductors of the '90s," adds Jackie Sissel, a member of the Indianapolis-based Families Organized for Real Choice in Education (FORCE).
"I don't favor national school vouchers, but we've had to face up to the fact that old ideas don't work everywhere," says Rep. Thomas Davis (R) of Virginia, who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing the District of Columbia.
"It's costing up to $9,600 a year to educate a child in the D.C. public system. The schools are so broken that every effort to fix them has failed. You just can't get rid of incompetent teachers and administrators," he adds.
Opponents, including the Clinton administration, teachers' unions, and the NAACP, argue that such proposals will drain money away from the public system and will leave most poor children trapped in bad schools.
"The pitch has changed: It's more sophisticated, but such proposals are still vouchers in disguise. They harm public schools by taking attention away from reform in those schools," says acting deputy Education Secretary Marshall Smith.
Battles over school choice have been a fairly permanent feature in American politics. Until the 1970s, arguments over school choice usually signaled disagreement over whether federal dollars should go to parochial schools.
The nation provided public schools because they "strengthened democracy." Others had a right to set up private schools, but they were not entitled to and should not receive public funds, wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in a widely circulated 1949 column. Francis Cardinal Spellman, the most prominent Roman Catholic leader in the US, dubbed such views as "anti-Catholic."
The debate was still so charged in 1960 that presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, took care to preempt the issue in his campaign. "I believe in an America where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference," he said in a landmark speech to Protestant ministers in Houston.
But by the mid-1970s, many Protestants had joined the school choice ranks. Between 1970 and 1980, public school enrollment dropped by nearly 14 percent in the United States, as enrollment in independent Christian schools doubled. Civil rights activists at the time called such new schools "segregation academies," because they recruited thousands of students who fled public schools after federal courts mandated busing to achieve racial balance.
About 11 percent of American K-12 students now attend private schools, of which 85 percent are church-related.
Still, voucher proposals were consistently rejected at the polls. As recently as 1993, some 3 in 4 Americans opposed allowing parents to choose a private school at public expense.
But opposition to vouchers declined steadily in the '90s, and Americans are now about equally divided on the issue, according to a Gallup poll released last month. The main group that shifted was blacks, who feel that urban public schools are failing their children. Blacks now rank among the strongest supporters of school choice at 62 percent.
"This movement is a coalition builder, it transcends all forms of politics. It has the same spirit of the civil rights movement of the '60s. This movement will not stop until every child in America has the same choice as Chelsea Clinton (who attended a private school)," says Gov. Arne Carlson (R) of Minnesota.
Minnesota recently passed the only statewide education choice plan in the nation. On a swing through Washington last week, Governor Carlson urged it as a model for the nation.
The state's $6.7 billion plan provides tax breaks for K-12 education expenses, including private-school tuition, computers, transportation, and textbooks. The state was in a position to do so, given a $2.3 billion surplus in 1996. It is increasing public education spending by 19 percent, the largest education increase in state history.
It also won the support of a majority of Democrats in both state houses, against strong opposition from teachers' unions, the AFL-CIO, and some civil rights groups.
Carlson's victory has put teachers unions on the defensive nationwide. In July, National Education Association President Bob Chase called on the nation's largest teachers union to "reinvent itself," including adopting peer review to improve the quality of teaching.
"Scholarship or voucher proposals are a cruel hoax, a transparent ploy ... that actually hurts the majority of poor children. I see it as a way for people in charge to get out from under their responsibility," says Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
"I don't criticize the parents for wanting to get their kids out of failing schools," she says. "I'm not hostile to people who run church schools and who want to get some public money. I blame governors and mayors who are in a position to do something about public education, and instead look for silver bullet solutions, such as vouchers."
Scholarships, Tax Credits Top School-Choice Options
Vouchers have faced court challenges and rejection at the polls. So school-choice advocates have turned to scholarships and tax incentives to give parents more options:
Minnesota choice proposal. After rejecting a voucher proposal, Minnesota legislators adopted a package of educational tax credits and deductions in June. Parents can deduct up to $1,625 for K-6 education expenses and up to $2,500 for Grades 7 to 12. Deductions include: private-school tuition, computers, transportation expenses, textbooks, tutoring, and educational summer camp. Poor families get an additional educational subsidy of $1,000 for each child, up to $2,000.
Education Savings Account, or A-plus Accounts. Congressional Republicans are proposing IRA-style savings accounts for education. Parents, relatives, or scholarship sponsors could deposit up to $2,000 a year per child in after-tax accounts. Interest would be tax-free if spent on education.
D.C. School-Choice bill. This bipartisan bill would give 2,000 low-income students up to $3,200 a year to attend public, private, or religious schools.