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San Antonio Businesses Launch Choice Program

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Business leaders in San Antonio last week announced an educational choice program that will help fund private-school tuition for some 700 students from low-income families.

The Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation is modeled on the CHOICE Charitable Trust, a privately funded choice program in Indianapolis that has garnered national attention since it was launched last year.

The C.E.O. Foundation was announced April 15 with the initial support of three major contributors: the San Antonio Express-News, one of the city's two major newspapers; the USAA Federal Savings Bank; and the Kinetic Concepts Foundation, the charitable arm of Kinetic Concepts Inc., a major medical-equipment manufacturer based in the city.

The three organizations have pledged a total of $1.5 million to help eligible elementary students from Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, to attend the school of their choice for three years. The foundation will provide half of total tuition, up to $750 per year, with parents responsible for the rest.

"We have already gotten 20 applications, and the applications haven't officially been released yet,'' said Robert Aquirre, the managing director of the foundation.

San Antonio's replication of the Indianapolis program may be the first of several to come, sponsors say. This week, Michigan leaders are expected to announce a similar choice foundation to help low-income students in Detroit and Grand Rapids to attend nonpublic schools.

"By next fall, I expect there to be a half-dozen programs across the nation,'' said Timothy Ehrgott, the executive director of the Indianapolis program.

The CHOICE Charitable Trust is aiding about 750 Indianapolis children, with 200 more on a waiting list, Mr. Ehrgott said. The program was the inspiration of J. Patrick Rooney, the chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Company, which has a major office in Indianapolis. (See Education Week, Sept. 4 and 18, 1991.)

That program has been lauded by Vice President Dan Quayle and other advocates of private-school choice as a way to allow poor and minority children to escape failing public schools.

But Indianapolis public-school officials have scorned it, in part because the system loses state aid for each child who leaves. Critics also contend that business should focus its support on improving the public-schools.

Competition 'Welcomed'

San Antonio's program was receiving a less-hostile reaction last week from public-school officials in Bexar County.

"We need to welcome competition that provides for innovation,'' said Victor Rodriguez, superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District. "Personally, I accept the challenge and I think the public schools need to measure up to it.''

The San Antonio district, with 61,000 students, is the largest of 15 public districts in Bexar County.

To be eligible for the aid program, students must qualify for the federal school-lunch program, regardless of whether they partake in it or whether they are already enrolled in a private school. Applicants will be selected on a first-come, first-served basis.

The program should also be somewhat of a boon to the 89 nonpublic elementary schools in the county, about one-third of which are Roman Catholic.

Brother Peter A. Pontolillo, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio, said he was delighted to see the business community "give low-income families an opportunity to choose.''

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