Voucher backers seek clout in voting booth

Movement works to build political power, but Americans remain

Michelle Urrutia, a working mother in San Antonio, sends her daughter, Michelle, to the private El Sendero Christian Academy.

Tina Whiters made a similar choice, sending her two sons, Ishmael and Nile-Elijah, to the Clara Muhammad School in Milwaukee.

Both think they should receive the money that would have been spent on their children in public schools in the form of a "voucher" to help them pay for their private tuition. And both say they would vote for a politician who promised to make that happen.

"The school system has to change," says Ms. Whiters. "I don't know how, but it's bad."

She and Ms. Urrutia are evidence of the school-choice movement's attempt to raise its voice in American politics. Support for vouchers nationwide has ebbed and grown several times during the past decade, but is now making a visible comeback - especially among religious conservatives and minorities.

Yet marshalling this support into an elective powerbase will be tricky. Religious conservatives often feel most at home with Republican candidates, while minorities - particularly African-Americans - usually vote Democratic. Moreover, suburban voters, a disparate but huge group, tend to be wary of anything that might cause their local public schools to lose funding, as could happen if vouchers are allowed.

Still, armed with polls that say most Americans back education reform, proponents of vouchers and other school-choice options are trying to parlay that support into political power.

"It's a politically explosive issue that can galvanize voters in a way that we haven't seen in a long time," says Earl Jackson, an African-American minister and president of the Samaritan Project, a pro-voucher conservative group in Chesapeake, Va. "The need [for vouchers] is much more in the urban schools, where increasingly, American children are falling behind. But in church-run schools, children are improving. And nothing succeeds like success."

THE movement's successes have already led several big states to consider school choice. Texas lawmakers are locked in a debate over a bill that would start a pilot voucher program, and similar bills are pending in Florida and Pennsylvania. In California, proponents are close to putting vouchers on the 2000 ballot initiative.

In many cases, though, voucher proponents aren't content to wait for legislators. In San Antonio, a $1.2 million scholarship fund set up by Wal-Mart heir John Walton and millionaire James Leininger of San Antonio is sending 600 students in a mainly Hispanic school district - including Michelle - to the private schools of their choice. In Milwaukee, a half-tuition private scholarship program has been replaced with a full-tuition public program, sending hundreds of children such as Ishmael and Nile-Elijah to private schools.

"My sense is that the support for vouchers or some kind of school choice is growing," says Isabel Sawhill, an education analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's particularly strong in minority communities ... who ... can't afford the same choices as the middle class."

Still, the movement's political aspirations are hamstrung somewhat by a number of considerations, among them concern that public funding for private schools might violate the Constitution's ban on state support for religion. Moreover, any politician who aggressively supports vouchers risks alienating the powerful teachers' unions, which oppose the concept.

The American public, too, seems to have mixed feelings about vouchers. One poll, by the Gallup organization last year, found 48 percent in favor of full-tuition vouchers and 46 percent opposed. Another poll, by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, found that minority support for vouchers was falling: 48 percent of African-Americans supported vouchers in 1998, down from 57 percent in 1997.

Vouchers fare much worse when stacked up against other education reforms. Asked to choose their priorities between vouchers and putting qualified teachers in every classroom, 84 percent of respondents chose teachers, according to a November Harris poll. Only 14 percent chose vouchers.

Perhaps reflecting this ambivalence, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas is supporting a bill that would set a pilot voucher program in the state's six largest cities. "I know there's a huge debate raging, but we must not trap students in low-performing schools," said Governor Bush in his Jan. 27 state of the state speech. "It is time to see if it works."

Voucher supporters say Bush's speech has the ring of a strong endorsement. Opponents say the key phrase in that promise - "if it works" - sounds more like an escape clause.

The greater irony in Texas, says Karen Miller of the National PTA in Washington, is that "Texas is leading the nation ... in terms of educational improvement and accountability. This is not a state that needs to make apologies."

In any case, insiders at the state capital say the voucher bill may never come to a vote. A petition organized by Democratic Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos has gathered enough signatures to keep the voucher bill from coming to a floor vote.

This may mean that Michelle Urrutia's daughter will need to depend on the kindness of rich strangers for a while longer. "It's made a big difference over the public schools," she says.

In Milwaukee, Basimah Abdullah, the principal of the Clara Muhammad School, says that most people in the neighborhood have never heard of the phrase "school choice," but when she explains it, they embrace it.

And at election time, she definitely knows her 70 families will send someone to the polls to vote. Why? Because she calls to remind them.

"We're having school board elections this week, and I'm calling all my parents to make sure they know who to vote for," she says. "I know, that's bad, but this is important."

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