Real-World Choice

The education establishment breathed a sigh of relief last year after it defeated a voucher measure in Colorado and helped elect Bill Clinton, an opponent of private school choice. Some education bureaucrats declared the choice movement was stalled. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Each week brings evidence of interest in school choice from surprising sources. Albert Shanker, the head of the 800,000-strong American Federation of Teachers, recently said he would support vouchers for private schools if they were limited to students in the bottom 10% of their classes. U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat, is backing a pilot voucher bill in Connecticut that has strong support in the state Legislature. In 20 cities, privately funded vouchers are being given out or are planned. Politicians, who used to avoid discussing choice as much as Social Security reform, are starting to recognize a political winner.

In Maryland, Democratic Governor William Donald Schaefer wants to give $2,900 vouchers to 200 low-income students for use in any public or private school. Teachers unions have declared war on his modest idea. “This is nothing more, nothing less, than the life or death of the public school system,” says Jane Stem of the Maryland Teachers Association. We guess this means Ms. Stem and her cohorts are worried it might work.

Aware that political obstacles may delay choice for years in many states, its supporters are setting up privately financed programs. (In truth, all choice programs are privately funded since the value of any voucher is usually less than half of what parents are forced to pay to support the public school system.) The first effort began in 1991 in Indianapolis with support from the Golden Rule Insurance Co. and Eli Lilly.

Pat Rooney, the chairman of Golden Rule, was inspired after parents at his mixed-race church gave up on efforts to reform Indianapolis’s inner-city schools. Today, 925 students attend private schools using vouchers, and the public school system has responded by scrambling to adopt its own choice program called Select-a-School. “Parents are being empowered to make decisions that once were only made by nameless, faceless bureaucrats,” says William Crawford, a black state legislator who is sponsoring a statewide voucher bill.

Choice plans elsewhere innovate in other ways. New York’s Student/Sponsor Partnership has placed potential dropouts in private schools for seven years with great success. In Atlanta, low-income parents administer the program themselves. In Milwaukee, the Bradley Foundation and others are sending nearly 2,000 kids to private schools. A state-funded program provides vouchers for an additional 600 students. Governor Tommy Thompson wants to double that number. San Antonio’s voucher program has led to the creation of new private schools to meet the demand. But the most unusual choice program of all isn’t just aimed at parents and students, but also at teachers. The South Carolina Policy Council is setting up a network of “Freedom Schools” in the state. Inspired by the schools that supplemented the inferior education offered blacks in the Jim Crow era, the Freedom Schools will offer Saturday classes to students of all races.

Students at Freedom Schools will no doubt benefit from the experience, but so will the teachers. “We want to create an environment where teachers will recognize the benefits of choice and come to support it,” says the Policy Council’s Bill Myers. “Every Saturday they can escape burdensome regulations and centralized power and discover again how rewarding teaching can be.”

South Carolina, which has the lowest SAT scores of any state, is a hotbed of interest in choice. A recent Heritage Foundation conference in Greenville drew a standing-room only crowd. The Freedom Schools concept has drawn support across the political spectrum from state ACLU President Kevin Gray to GOP Secretary of State Jim Miles, who will run for Governor next year on a choice platform.

No one should underestimate the power of those who want to block this innovation. But there are signs that some choice critics may be starting to feel isolated.

America has no more virulent opponent of choice than Herbert Grover, Wisconsin’s state superintendent of schools. Having failed in countless efforts to sabotage Milwaukee’s choice program, he appeared in January at the annual convention of state school board members to ask them to back increases in state sales, income and corporate taxes to pay for public education. He told them school boards have a duty to advocate the needs of children, not taxpayers. Delegates promptly voted against higher taxes, citing a desire to control soaring costs instead. Mr. Grover is retiring in disgust; a public school teacher who supports vouchers is in a runoff election next month to succeed him.

The presence of even a small choice program can sometimes wake up the slumbering educational establishment.


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Written by Bill