If Robert Aguirre is a hero for families in the financially troubled Edgewood neighborhood of San Antonio, it's not just because he is a successful businessman.
It's because, as director of the Children's Education Opportunity [CEO] Foundation, he is offering full-tuition "vouchers" for 14,000 students in Edgewood to attend the private school of their choice.
"These vouchers are going to people who could make the decision of where their children will get the best education," says Mr. Aguirre, standing in front of the private school he attended as a boy, St. John Berchmans' School.
The offer from the CEO Foundation is both massive ($50 million over the next 10 years) and ambitious (it is the first time vouchers have been offered to an entire public school district).
It is also controversial. Proponents argue that a spark of competition from private schools will push public schools to improve. Critics say it will merely drain the brightest kids and needed funds from troubled schools.
President Clinton uses a similar rationale to explain his promise to veto a House bill passed last week that would give low-income students in Washington, D.C., vouchers to attend private schools.
In San Antonio, the $4,000-per-student payments are technically scholarships, not vouchers, since they come from a foundation, not the government. Nearly $45 million of the foundation's $50 million endowment comes from James Leininger, a San Antonio millionaire. But the CEO Foundation - a private group - insists on calling them vouchers and hopes that this experiment in San Antonio will break down conceptual walls against vouchers.
In any case, most observers agree that this funding experiment has already put San Antonio at ground zero on the issue of school choice and put public education at the center of public debate in an election year.
"Education is going to be such a hot issue this year," says Cecile Richards, head of the Texas Freedom Network, which tracks the growing political clout of religious groups in Texas. The voucher issue "could be the deciding factor in some swing elections."
Vouchers have enjoyed their greatest support within the Republican Party, drawing together both fiscal and social conservatives. But they have also gained support in minority communities, where vouchers are seen as an escape for African-American and Hispanic students from faltering public schools.
In the Edgewood neighborhood here, vouchers are seen as a godsend.
"With vouchers, people will have the freedom to decide the best place for their kids to get a good education and a good moral foundation," says Paul Rodriguez, a burly coach at St. John Berchmans', as his uniformed son Paul and daughter Mariette look on. "My pet peeve is that there aren't enough people willing to help" push for vouchers. "But sooner or later, it's going to grow."
Proponents hope the San Antonio voucher plan will not only improve the performance of those students who attend private schools, but also the education of those students who have been left behind in public schools. "If we inject competition, the public schools might get better," says Fritz Steiger, president of CEO America Foundation, a national organization in Bentonville, Ark. "They can't reform themselves. They're a monopoly."
While San Antonio is likely to become a showplace for the voucher movement, school choice is certain to enter the public debate in every district of the state. Christian Coalition voter guides list vouchers as a top issue for members. One conservative Texas group, Putting Children First, will be donating funds to any pro-voucher candidate running for the legislature.
State Rep. Delwin Jones (R) of Lubbock is not waiting for - nor expecting - a check. For one thing, he's running unopposed this year. For another, he's a rare Republican who opposes vouchers.
"If you take money out of the public schools, as short of funds as they are, you will undermine public education," says Mr. Jones. The key, he says, is parental attention, not money. "If parents of any child would devote as much attention to public schools as parents offer to children in private schools, I think the scores of public schools would improve dramatically."
Polls show that most Texans still reject the use of public dollars for private schools. A survey conducted last year by bipartisan pollsters showed only 27 percent said tax dollars should be used to "assist parents who send their children to private, parochial, or religious schools." The majority, 67 percent, said public money should go to "improve public schools."
"Out in the suburbs, they moved to those neighborhoods specifically because of the good schools. Take money away from those schools, and they see it as a threat," says Ms. Richards, who predicts that the voucher issue will backfire on its proponents.
But in minority communities, that negative opinion may be shifting. Support for vouchers among Hispanic voters has shot from 25 percent in a poll last year to 84 percent last month, according to another poll.
"As a businessman," says Mr. Aguirre, "it's hard to find employees who can fill out a job application.... A lot of people I grew up with [in Edgewood] didn't graduate from high school. If we [Hispanics] don't have education, we don't have anything."