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Houston Looks at Private Schools To Ease Overcrowding

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The superintendent of the Houston school district has proposed turning to private schools as one option for dealing with serious overcrowding in the nation's sixth-largest school system.

In a memo to the school board last month, Superintendent Rod Paige suggested that some students from overcrowded public schools could attend private schools at district expense.

The idea was immediately branded by critics as a form of educational voucher, although Mr. Paige disputes that interpretation.

The superintendent of the 210,000-student district said such contracts with private schools would merely expand the existing practice of placing some special-education and at-risk children in nonpublic schools at district expense.

Houston school officials say they face a crisis because enrollment is creeping up each year, packing students in increasingly crowded and deteriorating buildings. In May, district voters rejected a proposed $390 million bond issue to build 15 new schools and renovate 84 existing ones.

"With enrollments continuing to increase, the district must immediately address two critical issues: providing additional facilities space for incoming students and bringing existing space up to standards," Mr. Paige said in his July 18 memo.

Even some supporters of the idea of contracting with private schools to serve some district students consider it at least a cousin of the traditional notion of vouchers, which, in theory, introduce competition into K-12 schools by giving parents the choice of sending their children to public or private schools with state funds.

"Clearly, it resembles vouchers in that parents could choose to take their child to a private school and have the school system pay the tuition," said Don McAdams, a Houston school board member who supports the idea.

Take All Comers

Among the options Mr. Paige offered for dealing with overcrowding were extending the school day and year, cutting kindergarten back to half a day, redrawing attendance boundaries, and using more portable classrooms.

But sending some students to the private sector was easily the attention-grabber.

The proposal would allow students who could not attend full neighborhood schools to attend a school run by a "nondistrict educational provider."

Last year, more than 2,600 Houston students were bused to other schools because their neighborhood schools had reached their capacity. Anticipating 2 percent enrollment growth, officials said the number is sure to be higher this year.

Under the contracting proposal, participating private schools would have to accept the district's payment of $3,575--90 percent of the district's per-pupil--as full tuition. That amount would place the city's most elite private institutions out of reach but would be more than some smaller private schools charge.

The private schools would have to accept all students who applied under the contracting program and would have to administer state achievement tests and report attendance to the neighborhood public schools.

"If there is a private school in the neighborhood that meets our criteria for quality and meets our conditions, then it would be in the children's best interest to go to that school rather than spend two hours a day on a school bus" traveling to a distant public school, said Susan Sclafani, the district's chief of staff.

Nose Under the Tent

While the Houston proposal is unusual, it is not unprecedented for public school districts to pay tuition to send children to private schools. In Vermont, some districts without their own high schools have been paying tuition to private high schools for more than a century. (See "Vermont's 'Tuitioning' Is Nation's Oldest Brand of Choice," May 18, 1988.)

And districts routinely have placed a small number of students in private schools on an individual basis, usually when the districts cannot meet the educational needs of students with disabilities.

Clint Bolick, a voucher advocate with the Washington-based Institute for Justice, said the Houston proposal sounded like an incremental advance for the voucher movement.

"Anytime the private sector is included among the range of options, we think that moves the debate forward," he said. "But it is unquestionably incremental."

Critics raised several objections to the idea.

"We're opening the door for the voucher system," said Arthur M. Gaines Jr., a Houston school board member who opposes the plan. "We should not take public money and fund private institutions. There are other alternatives for the overcrowding. We can shift boundaries. We have quite a few schools that are very underenrolled."

Others said the district was attempting to do something the Texas legislature turned down in 1995 when it removed a voucher proposal from its massive revision of the state education code.

The voucher issue was "the brawl of the session, and the legislature rejected it," said Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. She added that "immediate litigation" would follow if the board approves private school contracting.

The proposal could be voted on within a few weeks or months.

"They are punishing the public for the failure of the bond campaign," the Houston union chief said. "We have buildings that are underutilized because the board doesn't want to bite the bullet and redistrict."

Church-State Concerns

While some observers have questioned whether the district has the legal authority to contract with private schools, Ms. Sclafani said the state education code expressly authorizes it.

The district is even examining whether church-affiliated schools might participate as long as children from the public system were not exposed to religious teaching or symbols, she said.

"Frankly, our attorneys are looking at that," Ms. Sclafani said.

Anthony Durso, the principal of Mount Carmel High School, a Roman Catholic school in southeast Houston with an enrollment of about 240 students, likes Mr. Paige's idea."I could take 100 students off his hands at the opening of the school year."

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