Jim and James Rogers were so worried about the safety of local public schools that they were about to send their daughters to live with relatives in Virginia. Then the Washington Scholarship Fund offered the family another option.
Now, Cecillia and Anjelica attend Grades 2 and 5 at St. Thomas More Cathedral School, a Roman Catholic school in Arlington, Va. The grass is cropped, boys wear ties to the sandbox, and there's not a broken window in sight.
The girls like the school, and Kim says she's not afraid to send them off in the morning. With the help of the private foundation, the $4,860 annual tuition is within reach.
Such private funds to help poor families exit public schools are springing up all over the country. Sponsors, such as venture-capitalist Theodore Forstmann, say they want to give poor families the same opportunity as others to choose a good school for their children.
"We absolutely must give parents the ability to seek a good education wherever they can find it," said Mr. Forstmann, in Washington last month to announce new private-scholarship programs in 36 cities, as well as Arkansas and Michigan. He and Wal-Mart heir John Walton pledged $100 million and have since raised another $75 million for their Children's Scholarship Fund, which will give away 35,000 scholarships by lottery on April 17, 1999.
It's the private side of the hottest topic in American education: the use of state money to finance an exit from public schools. The US Supreme Court and state courts from Maine to Wisconsin are weighing the constitutionality of public vouchers for private schools, many of which are religious.
But in the meantime, private philanthropists are leaping into the breach with programs to make private school affordable for at least some poor families. Leery of how public schools might spend their money, these philanthropists are handing out scholarships to private programs from Texas to Michigan. If these kids do better than those that stay in public schools, they will help build a case for reforming public schools through competition.
More than 15,000 students nationally used private scholarships from 41 programs to leave public schools this year. Private scholarships are now available in 31 states, according to a new survey by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Program directors say that demand is growing, especially among African-American families in poor city schools.
Some 7,500 families applied for 1,000 private scholarships in Washington this year. "We visited four public schools in our neighborhood, but we just couldn't let the kids go to school in those places," says Mrs. Rogers. "There were guards on the playground, drunkies on the street, and the tables in classrooms looked as if they might fall on the children. I went home and cried." (School authorities declined requests for a visit to confirm these observations.)
"I've seen jails better kept," adds staff Sgt. James Rogers, who recently transferred to Bolling Air Force Base, at the edge of one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington.
Nearly half of the children living on the base attend private schools or are schooled at home. But medical treatment for Kim cut into the budget and the time she could give to home-schooling. "If we'd sent the kids away, I would have only seen them on weekends, but it would have been worth it. At least I'd know they were safe," she says.
Safety and good teachers
Safety and the quality of teaching are the biggest concerns of parents seeking private scholarships in Washington, says Patrick Purtill, president of the Washington Scholarship Fund. In a city where private-school tuition can top $15,000, most scholarship applicants wind up in Catholic parochial schools. "They're affordable and they're already in the neighborhoods where most of our applicants live," he adds.
For example, tuition at St. Augustine in downtown Washington is $2,415 for non-parishioners. Scholarship recipient and seventh-grader Naeem Hargrove says the public school he used to attend "wasn't so good. When I came here, my grades went up." His friend, Michael Jones, also quit a D.C. public school. "It was pitiful. I used to get beat up a lot, and one of the teachers called me dumb. But now I fit in," he says.
Recently, several key scholarship programs have refocused their efforts on the very poorest students and school districts.
In 1997, philanthropist Virginia Gilder funded 50 scholarships for students in more than a dozen schools in the Albany, N.Y., area. This year, she has narrowed her efforts to the city's lowest performing school, where scholarships of up to $2,000 a year were offered to all students. Of the 458 students at Giffen Memorial Elementary School, 153 applied and 105 eventually enrolled in private schools this fall.
"We needed to do something dramatic," says Brian Backstrom, deputy director for Albany's A Brighter Choice scholarships. He cites Giffen's new principal, shakeup of teaching staff, and adoption of a respected reading program as a signal that public schools respond to competition.
"Beyond the problem of kids being stuck in bad schools, I've come to believe that no one place is right for every child. And unless you have money to move, you don't have options," says Ms. Gilder, who is also supplementing funds for a new public charter school in New Jersey.
But, she adds, "private money can't compete with the public dollars that go into education funding. If you bankrupted all of the richest foundations in the country, you could only keep public schools running for a few months. If you think a few well-to-do people can rescue kids and turn the schools around, think again."
Similarly, San Antonio's Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation, which has given partial scholarships to poor children since 1992, has extended its offer to every low-income student in one of the city's poorest school districts.
Of some 13,000 eligible students, the Edgewood School District in Texas lost 550 students to this program, or about 4 percent. "We had expected 20 percent. But the private schools ... are not yet up to handling so many new students. It will take years to get up to capacity," says Fritz Steiger, president of the foundation.
Are private schools really better?
Backers hope that a focus on one district will give researchers a clearer idea of why achievement improves in private schools.
Earlier studies in San Antonio showed that scholarship students in private schools scored better on tests than their public school counterparts. That result could mean that private schools better educate poor kids. It could also mean that better students go after scholarships.
That ambiguity is often used to discredit private scholarship or voucher programs. Critics say that comparisons can be unfair, as private schools "cream" top students. "Those studies never tell the whole story," says Reg Weaver, vice president of the National Association of Teachers. "Private and parochial schools don't have to accept kids with discipline problems or special needs or kids whose parents are not involved."
Critics also worry that voucher programs will drain resources from public schools. The Edgewood School District could lose at least $2 million in state aid next year because of a drop in enrollment.
Private-aid programs being studied in New York and Washington could help resolve that issue. Recipients are selected randomly - that is, there is no reason to believe that winners are any more motivated, brilliant, or helped at home than those who missed out and stayed in public school.
Last year, for example, School Choice Scholarships Foundation offered scholarships to applicants in New York City. Some 20,000 applied, and 1,000 were selected by lottery. Researchers then set up a experiment including a control group from rejected applicants. The results of that study are expected this week.
"These test scores will be very important," says Bruce Kovner, chairman of Caxton Corp., who founded the School Choice scholarships. "If we can show not only that there is tremendous demand, but also tremendous improvement, I think it will be very difficult for defenders of the status quo to argue that the poor kids shouldn't be given the choice that they themselves are exercising simply by having enough money.
"If we can show there is enough improvement, maybe we can convince the public schools to make some changes," he says. "Meanwhile, we'll be helping kids get a better education."
A LOOK AT SOME PRIVATE VOUCHER PROGRAMS
* The Children's Scholarship Fund
The newest and most heavily endowed private fund plans to offer 35,000 scholarships next year, to be selected by lottery on April 17, 1999. Some 36 communities have been selected for participation, including new programs in Boston; Seattle; New Orleans; Newark, N.J.; New York; Omaha, Neb.; Savannah, Ga.; Toledo, Ohio; and Charlotte, N.C.
To apply, call (800) 805-KIDS.
* Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation
A national clearinghouse of information for privately funded voucher programs. CEO programs are operating in 41 cities, representing an investment of $50 million.
For information call (501) 273-6957.
* The School Choice Scholarships Foundation
Attracted more than 20,000 applications for 1,000 scholarships in New York City. This year, applicants were restricted to the city's 14 poorest school districts.
For information or to be placed on the mailing list, call (212) 333-8711.
* The Washington Scholarship Fund
Pilot program for the Children's Scholarship Fund. Offers 1,000 scholarships of up to $1,700 per child; and every family must contribute at least $500 yearly toward tuition. To qualify, families must be D.C. residents and not exceed income limits of $25,506 for a household of 2; $56,394 for a household of 8.
For information call (202)-842-1355.
* Next week: Corporate power in public school reform. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org