Over the past two months, public service announcements have celebrities such as home-run slugger Sammy Sosa and poet Maya Angelou telling low-income parents now was the time to apply for a scholarship, a private voucher. It would be a way to get their kids out of the public school system and into private school.
Their message resonated, and 1.25 million children applied to the Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF) for the four-year scholarships, which were chosen by lottery. Yesterday, CSF announced the 40,000 winners of more than $160 million, the largest private scholarship effort ever.
The large response is emblematic of the public's dissatisfaction with the public school system. Even though the scholarship applicants had to agree to put up $1,000 of their own money if they won, there was no shortage of applicants. Low-income Americans were willing to commit themselves to spend $5 billion to win a scholarship for their children.
"Where these people are today, they are not happy," says James Courtovich, the president of the CSF.
The CSF effort comes at a time when the political debate over the public funding of school vouchers is developing the intensity of a nasty PTA meeting. On Monday, Hillary Rodham Clinton, testing the waters for a New York senate race, said school vouchers would destroy the public school system. Her potential opponent, Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, supports them.
Other states where the voucher movement has become a hot topic include California, Texas, and Pennsylvania. For some governors, it's practically taken on a campaign effort. In New Mexico, Gov. Gary Johnson (R) is embarking on an eight-day swing to try to persuade doubting legislators to pass his school voucher plan.
For the most part, it's a Republican versus Democrat issue. However, African-Americans, who usually vote Democrat, tend to support vouchers.
In Congress, the issue has been debated every year for the past eight years. "There is a continuous push for voucher experiments even as small as allowing District kids to participate in pilot projects but it just doesn't fly," says Richard Seder, director of education studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Los Angeles.
One of the main reasons public efforts can't get through legislatures is opposition from teachers' unions. They point out teachers in parochial schools, which tend to gain students from voucher efforts, are paid substantially less than teachers in public schools.
The sponsors of the CSF program hope to reenergize the public school system with some old-fashioned competition. In effect, CSF has done an end-run around the political controversy through philanthropy, says Dan McGroarty, author of a book on the voucher experience in Milwaukee.
"We hope this competition will spur reforms to make education a better product for everyone," says Mr. Courtovich.
It's not surprising that Courtovich uses business terms to describe education. The main sponsors of the CSF program are businessmen. Theodore Forstmann, known for snapping up companies, and John Walton, heir to the Wal-mart empire, put up $50 million apiece of their own money. They then got other business leaders to fund another $60 million.
Parents with children in voucher programs generally are happy with the results. One of the main reasons: There are rarely incidences of violence in the parochial schools. "When we looked at the Catholic schools in and around Los Angeles and compared them to the public school system, we found the main reason the Catholic schools had virtually no violence is because they treat the smallest incident as a big thing," says Mr. Seder.
It's less clear if the vouchers result in better students. Paul Peterson, director of Harvard's program on education policy and governance, has studied New York's School Choice Scholarships, which are similar to the 40,000 CSF scholarships handed out yesterday. He's found that educational gains don't take place right away. Instead, the gains start taking place in the third and fourth year of the scholarships. "If you get those gains every year, then you start to close the difference between black and white test scores," he says.
Mr. Peterson says one of the main reasons for the improvement is fewer disruptions in the classroom. "You have less class misbehavior ... and more homework," he explains.
Despite the improvement in classroom discipline, Peterson cautions parents who have just won a scholarship for their children from expecting too much. "I would caution anyone to think there will be a big change for $1,000."