As head of a private, urban middle school I founded on a shoestring 17 years ago, I've watched the recent education reform debate from my place at the front lines with more than the usual bemusement.
In particular, I'm struck by the steady parade of critics clearly dismissive of President Bush's plan to "voucherize" federal moneys for students in chronically failing public schools, giving their parents $1,500 per student to use at the school of their choice. After all, they ask, what can you do with $1,500?
Leave aside the fact that for many critics of the president's proposal, the preferred solution wouldn't be to increase the $1,500 to some higher amount, but rather to bury the idea altogether, giving us $0. But before the pundits and the policy wonks make the decision for me and my students, let me just say:
My school could put $1,500 per student to good use.
At first glance, my school for fourth- through eighth-graders might seem to illustrate the point that such a sum would be inconsequential. With a full tuition of $7,400, $1,500 would leave low-income parents on the hook for a tuition bill few could bear. Yet first glances can mislead. Only 12 percent of Community Prep's students actually pay full tuition. Another 12 percent pay half-tuition of $3,700. Sixteen percent pay a quarter-share, or $1,850.
In addition, a full 60 percent of our kids qualify for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. From these families, we ask $75 per month over a 10-month schedule. At least, that's our starting point. We work down from $75 to whatever they can afford. In fact, 1 in every 5 students at Community Prep pays $10 per month for 10 months. A visitor once asked how we got by with so many kids paying such a nominal amount. I told them it's not at all nominal, given their financial circumstances.
The rest of our tuition money comes from corporate and individual donations.
How much difference could $1,500 make? As our school's eighth-grade algebra teacher, it's my job to vex my students with word problems. So here's one for the pundits: If 30 children walk through the school door each morning from families paying $100 a year, and the next day, those 30 children walk through the door carrying $1,500 vouchers, how much difference will it make for their education?
Before you reach for a calculator, let me say that the answer depends on the mathematical value you assign to a child's success.
What could my school do with $1,500? To begin with, we could buy time: Fifteen hundred dollars would provide an extra hour of instruction daily. With 180 more hour-long lessons, a 13-year-old girl with a mental block about math could learn the intricacies of algebra, discovering the possibility sometime between September and June that she was truly smart. In those 180 hours, a fifth-grader could master the art of writing three clear, concise paragraphs. He could use that knowledge to communicate his place in the world, and his plans to change it.
Fifteen hundred dollars can provide a day-long trip to a local science museum for our entire school of 150 students. It would cover the 120-mile bus ride to Boston, including the cost of an admissions ticket to the Boston Museum of Science. There, students would get to attend a lightning demonstration, play with minerals and animal bones in hands-on science kits, and light the bulbs in a cube of 1,000 light bulbs - illuminating in a single flash of insight the abstract concepts of line, area, and volume. Back at school, my teachers could build on those varied experiences for weeks to come.
Fifteen hundred dollars would pay for 1,000 school lunches, a week of bus transportation for 150 students, and a month of utilities in a school our size.
For $1,500, we could cover the rental cost of a performance space, and for the material that students, teachers, parents, and other volunteers could fashion into costumes and sets so our 150 racially and ethnically diverse students could dress in costumes expressing their history and heritage.
What about the better-off private schools, which charge far higher tuitions than we do? To enhance diversity, most offer financial aid to talented lower-income children. A child who comes with a voucher for $1,500 may have a better chance at admission for an elite education than one who doesn't.
The public education establishment has said for years that money matters in education. So for the sake of ending that argument, let's agree that it does. Fifteen hundred dollars for a low-income child from a poor-performing school might just open the door to a new world of learning. So if I could deliver just one message to Washington policymakers, it would be: Don't make the decision for us. Give children the chance and parents the option, and see what we can do.
Dan Corley is head of Community Prep School in Providence, R.I.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society