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Voucher Proponents Claim Victory in Albany

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When a pro-voucher group offered private school scholarships to all the students entering grades 1-6 at Giffen Memorial Elementary School last summer, the Albany, N.Y., school became the focus of a nationally watched experiment in school choice.

A semester later, organizers of the scholarship program, called A Better Choice, say they've proved that vouchers, contrary to claims that they would hurt the public schools, can prompt districts to make needed improvements.

Since July, the struggling Giffen School has gained a new principal, two other top administrators, and a dozen new replacement teachers. The new administration has put in place a comprehensive improvement plan aimed at raising the levels of parent involvement, professional development, and student behavior.

"It's been a very effective use of private money by not just helping children who get the scholarships, but by leveraging change," said Fritz Steiger, the president of the Bentonville, Ark.-based CEO America, an organization that supports such scholarship programs. "It's no longer a principle. It's happening."

Although he won't disclose where, Mr. Steiger said he's been called by groups in a handful of other cities hoping to replicate the Giffen program as early as next fall.

'Kick in the Pants'

Privately financed voucher programs have sprung up in dozens of cities, but ABC is apparently the only one to offer scholarships to nearly all the students in one school. (Those entering Giffen's prekindergarten classes were ineligible.) ("Albany Program Puts New Spin on Private Vouchers," May 28, 1997.)

Underwritten by a $1 million gift from the fortune of a New York City investor, the scholarships cover 90 percent of private school tuition costs, up to $2,000. Tuition at most Roman Catholic elementary schools in Albany, which have taken the bulk of the Giffen pupils who accepted the vouchers, is $1,000 to $1,800 a year.

Organizers of ABC say they picked Giffen Elementary because its students' test performance was the lowest among all the elementary schools in the Albany region.

"We had two goals from the beginning," Tom Carroll, ABC's executive director, said. "One was to help give students a choice. And the other was to give the school district a kick in the pants."

The program sparked immediate debate, beginning with the number of students who switched schools. District officials disputed ABC's initial claims that the parents of about 150 of the 458 eligible students took advantage of the program. Officials at ABC now say 105 students left, while the district says 77.

What's undeniable is that Giffen Elementary has undergone something of an overhaul this school year.

In October, the new principal announced a wide-ranging series of initiatives: staff workshops on teaching methods, a mentoring program for new educators, a telephone hot line for help with homework, recruitment of more parent volunteers, and a renewed emphasis on student discipline.

The school board also voted last fall to give Giffen $125,000 more than the district's funding formula called for. The school's annual budget is about $3.6 million.

The overhaul "probably would have happened, but it might have happened slower," said the new principal, Maxine Fantroy-Ford, who now begins each morning at Giffen with a schoolwide assembly. "I think we would be in denial to say that the school didn't need improvement."

Test scores are not yet available to show whether the new ABC program has coincided with any rise in student performance at Giffen Elementary.

New Challenges

But officials at the 10,000-student district aren't sending thank you letters to ABC.

The new superintendent, Lonnie Palmer, who came to Albany last summer, says the real catalyst may not have been competition, but the subsequent media attention.

"They're changes I would have liked to have made anyway," he maintained. "I think the media attention has allowed us to maybe make them more rapidly because it galvanized public support."

Although voucher supporters paint the upshot of the scholarship program as a simple equation in which competition yields improvement, Giffen's challenges are more complicated, Mr. Palmer argued.

Sitting in one of Albany's poorest neighborhoods, the school's student population is highly transient, and 96 percent of its pupils are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Nearly half the enrollment turns over each year.

A dozen or so students who took scholarships have returned to the Albany public schools since last fall, Mr. Palmer said.

"The private schools would like to pick up the students who are going to succeed in any environment," he asserted.

The scholarships' organizers claim that just eight students have returned, and that they did so for a variety of reasons: Some had discipline problems in their new schools, and others simply missed siblings still at Giffen.

"For some students, they may have had to do some remedial work to come up to grade level, but every attempt was made to meet their needs," said Sister Jane Herb, the superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Albany. "I don't know how they compare to the rest of the students at Giffen, but I know they've been challenged by the new curriculum."

Morale Damaged?

While acknowledging that ABC has brought a new focus to Giffen Elementary, ABC may also have dealt a blow to the school's morale by labeling it as the district's worst, Superintendent Palmer said.

"When I look at the balance sheet, I think we didn't come out ahead," he said.

But others are more equivocal.

"It seemed to be the one factor that got the district to look at Giffen, and in that respect it was a good thing," said Anne Pope, the president of the Albany branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a group whose national leadership opposes vouchers.

Ms. Pope, however, doesn't believe Giffen's experience proves that publicly subsidized vouchers can improve an entire district.

"Public schools should be held accountable," Ms. Pope said. "But I don't think we should be giving public funds to private schools. That would just be a siphoning of funds."

Some experts agree that the privately financed Giffen experiment hasn't settled the question of what effect a large-scale voucher program would have on an entire district.

"I don't think it proves anything systemwide," said Gary Orfield. The education professor at Harvard University is an opponent of vouchers. "It doesn't mean a net improvement if those resources are subtracted from somewhere else."

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