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Conn. District Considers Vouchers As Alternative to Classrooms

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Spurred by a sharp increase in student enrollment, some Fairfield, Conn., residents are proposing a voucher plan as a way to cut school costs.

The proposal would allow parents in Fairfield, an affluent community an hour north of New York City, to use public money to send their children to private or parochial schools.

With the public schools already at capacity, the town would have to build new classroom space to house the roughly 1,500 additional children who are expected to enroll in its schools over the next five years.

But the voucher proponents who formed the Coalition to Empower Fairfield argue that the town could save tax money by issuing vouchers and allowing parents to decide where to send their children to school. Fairfield's private and parochial schools have hundreds of spaces for new students, according to the coalition's leaders.

Similar arguments in favor of tax-funded vouchers are apparently cropping up in several other communities around the state.

"This is a rising issue here,'' said Colleen Adams, a parochial school parent who is leading the Fairfield voucher campaign. "Other towns are showing interest.''

Ms. Adams said she has been working with two state legislators--a Republican and a Democrat--who endorse the concept. And last week, Thomas S. Luby, the Democratic majority leader of the House, said he would propose legislation early next year that would allow the use of public money for private or religious schooling.

"We want to see if [the town] can hold off its building commitments in light of this information,'' added Ms. Adams. "We feel we're in a very good position to obtain authorizing legislation.''

Building Costs at Issue

But public school officials said they are hoping to move ahead with plans to create a new middle school and renovate several other schools, which the voucher proponents estimate could cost the town $100 million to $150 million.

"They've pushed the numbers very, very high for the buildings'' to make their point, Carol Harrington, the superintendent of the 7,000-student district, said of the pro-voucher forces. "They turned this into an issue of taxpayer burden.''

Sandra Mulligan, a P.T.A. president in one of Fairfield's elementary schools, estimated that the school-building committee convened by the town's representative town meeting has budgeted about $40 million to date.

The 50-member town meeting--an elected assembly that replaces the traditional New England town meeting, in which every adult resident is eligible to vote--has shelved one renovation project and formed a separate committee to study vouchers at the behest of a member who endorses the idea, said Peggy Morris, the president of the Fairfield Education Association.

The Coalition to Empower Fairfield--which its leaders estimate has 3,000 supporters--probably will propose that parents be given vouchers worth $4,000, about half what the public schools spend per pupil, Ms. Adams said.

Ms. Adams, who was just elected to the town meeting, argued that the plan "would produce a significant cost savings for the town. And our feeling is that the market would respond to the demands of the parents.''

But Ms. Morris of the F.E.A. asserted that the coalition is proposing the idea because it hopes to "alleviate a difficult financial situation'' for parochial schools.

Last summer, one of the town's large Roman Catholic schools closed its doors for good, but not before dozens of parents protested. Some of the school's suppporters went on to join the voucher campaign, Superintendent Harrington said.

Ulterior Motives?

Ms. Morris said some members of the coalition also have criticized ideas such as outcomes-based education that are being explored by the school district and by the Commission on Excellence in Education, a state panel formed by Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. The state commission is also looking at school choice.

"Voucher proponents see this as a way to criticize public schools,'' said Ms. Morris, who noted that some anti-O.B.E. literature has been distributed at town meetings.

In addition, other observers charged that the voucher proponents fear that more students from surrounding communities will be bused into the Fairfield district when the region moves ahead next year with a desegregation plan as required under a recent state law.

Both supporters and opponents of the voucher idea acknowledge uncertainty about just how much support it has locally, and about whether the legislature will provide a vehicle for the use of school vouchers.

"Most of the members of the board are of the opinion that state law would need to be changed, at a minimum,'' said James Lee, the chairman of the Fairfield school board.

Ms. Adams said she has proposed that the town panel studying vouchers conduct a local survey measuring public sentiment.

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