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Private Plans Seen Key to Showing Power of Vouchers

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INDIANAPOLIS--Privately funded voucher programs are critical to sustaining the momentum of the private-school-choice movement in the wake of electoral defeats of government-voucher plans and proponents, participants at a conference here have agreed.

The private plans will serve as real-world models that can demonstrate the power of vouchers to rescue children from failing public schools, said those attending the conference here this month sponsored by the Educational Choice Charitable Trust, a program that is providing 925 Indianapolis-area students with vouchers.

"The biggest impact of [a private voucher plan] is that it is real,''' said Timothy Ehrgott, the executive director of the Indianapolis program. "It is not a study, and it is not a public-relations effort.''

"We have all seen polls showing support for [private school] choice, but when you see the number of children lining up for the chance for a better education, that is a very powerful message,'' added Kevin Teasley, the director of a California group that is backing a June 1994 statewide ballot measure on vouchers.

Four Major Programs

The two-day conference was intended for anyone interested in establishing a voucher plan with private funds. The first such program was launched here in 1991 by J. Patrick Rooney, the chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Company.

The Choice Trust program has since been replicated in San Antonio, Milwaukee, and Atlanta, with a smattering of small-scale programs in other cities. (See Education Week, Sept. 16, 1992.)

Typically, the programs use corporate and private donations to provide vouchers to children from low-income families. The vouchers cover one-half of tuition for a private school, or a public school in another district, up to a maximum grant that varies from $750 in San Antonio to $3,000 in Atlanta.

The number of students served among the four major programs ranges from 179 in Atlanta to 1,953 in Milwaukee, and hundreds more are on waiting lists.

The Milwaukee program operates separately from the city's controversial state-funded voucher program for private schools.

Critics contend that the privately funded voucher programs detract from efforts to improve the public schools and offer false hope to low-income families, since only a limited number of vouchers are available.

But supporters argue that the programs are helping significant numbers of children move to better schools and creating an atmosphere of competition that will prod public school systems to improve.

"To me, the critical issue is that we empower parents to make decisions that are now being made by nameless, faceless bureaucrats,'' said State Rep. William A. Crawford of Indiana, who plans to introduce a bill to establish a state voucher system that would include private schools.

An Opportunity for Research

The conference here attracted more than 80 participants, many of whom said they hoped to launch their own local efforts.

Establishing privately funded programs in California would build support for the 1994 ballot measure, said Mr. Teasley.

"We need two Golden Rule-type projects--one for Northern California and one for Southern California,'' said Mr. Teasley, adding that he hopes to initiate a program in Los Angeles in the coming months.

John Cooper, a representative of Floridians for Educational Choice, said his organization is looking at creating a voucher program modeled on the Indianapolis plan, perhaps in the Orlando area.

The group also favors a state-funded voucher program that would include private schools, and is considering a drive to place the question on the ballot.

A privately funded plan is "worth doing in its own right, and it serves a public-policy purpose,'' Mr. Cooper said.

The private programs can also help the choice movement by presenting an opportunity for research on the impact of vouchers, several participants noted.

The Hudson Institute and Butler University in Indianapolis have launched a three-year longitudinal study of the Educational Choice Charitable Trust, while the San Antonio program will be the subject of a similar study by the University of North Texas.

"There is a need for independent research on these programs,'' said Michael Heisse, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, a think tank here. The only other research on a private-school-choice program, he noted, is an ongoing study being performed by John F. Witte of the University of Wisconsin on the Milwaukee state-funded voucher program.

Setbacks on Election Day

Proponents also expect the research to help the movement for publicly funded vouchers, which suffered setbacks on Election Day with the rejection of a voucher ballot measure in Colorado and the defeat of President Bush, who supported the inclusion of private schools in voucher proposals.

David Boaz, the executive vice president of the Washington-based Cato Institute, said he was not concerned about the effect on the choice movement of the election of Bill Clinton as President. The President-elect supports public school choice, but opposes government choice programs that include private schools.

"I'm not that concerned about the change in administrations,'' Mr. Boaz said. "Ultimately, education is a state and local issue. If anything, this may galvanize local support for private school choice.''

But the defeat of the voucher proposal in Colorado "was a real disappointment,'' Mr. Boaz acknowledged. "I would like to see the percentages [supporting vouchers] grow, but I expect we will lose several battles before we win one.''

Mr. Boaz said it was important to push forward with both publicly funded voucher programs and private plans.

Conference organizers said they would like to have 25 privately funded programs in place by the fall of 1994.

Toward that end, participants were provided with a hefty manual written by Robert B. Aguirre, the managing director of the Children Educational Opportunity Foundation in San Antonio.

The manual, which includes descriptions of current programs and sample legal documents, press releases, and organizational tips, is available for $9.95 plus $5 shipping and handling from the C.E.O. Foundation, P.O. Box 17447, San Antonio, Tex. 78217; (512) 829-0305.

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