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Group Offers$50 Million for Vouchers

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A San Antonio business foundation announced last week that it will provide as much as $50 million over the next 10 years to give school vouchers to any interested low-income student in one city district.

The vouchers will be available to some 93 percent of the students in the 14,000-student Edgewood district, which covers a poor, mostly Hispanic section of San Antonio. Families can use the tuition aid at private and parochial schools or at public schools in other districts.

The program is the first in the nation to promise vouchers to all low-income students in a district and to cover the total cost of private school tuition in most cases. It was announced by the Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation of San Antonio, which has provided partial-tuition scholarships to 2,300 children in the metropolitan area since 1992.

Fritz Steiger, the president of the CEO America Foundation, a Bentonville, Ark.-based organization that promotes privately financed vouchers, said the Edgewood program will give "every parent in that district a level playing field and the opportunity to make a choice."

Money for the program, as much as $5 million a year over 10 years, is coming from the CEO America Foundation and James R. Leininger of San Antonio, the founder of KCI Inc., a manufacturer of hospital beds and equipment.

The initiative is being launched at a time when state-funded voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland have been saddled with legal challenges, while such privately financed programs have been growing. The CEO America Foundation is sponsoring a conference this week in New York City to examine the 31 such programs nationwide.

Growing Movement

Meanwhile, a leading sponsor of a private voucher program in Washington is making final plans for a large, many-city scholarship program.

Theodore J. Forstmann, the senior partner of the New York-based investment firm Forstmann Little & Co., is preparing to announce plans for a national program to provide matching funds for local sponsors who are willing to pay for school vouchers in cities across the country.

Mr. Forstmann said last month that his plans include vouchers worth $1,000 annually for at least 5,000 Los Angeles children, beginning in the fall of 1999.

The Edgewood vouchers, called Horizon Scholarships, will provide as much as $3,600 per student in grades K-8 and $4,000 per student in grades 9-12. Students will receive slightly less if they choose schools outside the district.

All Edgewood students who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch under the federal school lunch program will be eligible for a scholarship.

The sponsors said they chose the district because it is large enough to make an impact and small enough to aid every eligible student. They said that more than half of the district's general population of 63,000 lives below the federal poverty level.

It is difficult to estimate how many families will take up the scholarship offer, Mr. Steiger said.

"I expect at least 300 to 500 in the first year, but that's just a guess," he said.

About 40 of the 50 Roman Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of San Antonio would be accessible to Edgewood students, said Dale Hoyt, the superintendent of Catholic schools. Of those, there is room for perhaps 1,500 new students, he said.

Three archdiocesan schools in the Edgewood district itself have room for a total of 150 students, said Mr. Hoyt, who said he welcomed the announcement of the program.

"We don't have a lot of wealth here [in San Antonio]," he said. "But we have a lot of good people who want a good education for their children."

The size of the Edgewood district also makes it suitable for studying the impact of the voucher program, the sponsors said, and they have hired Paul E. Peterson, a researcher at Harvard University, to evaluate it. Mr. Peterson has issued studies of the state-backed programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee that have found significant academic gains and parent satisfaction. Some of those findings have been disputed by other researchers.

Critics of the new program said it was designed to promote the passage of a proposed publicly funded voucher program in Texas. Voucher proposals were seriously considered by Texas lawmakers last year but did not advance.

John O'Sullivan, the secretary-treasurer of the Texas Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said vouchers will again be a hot topic when the legislature reconvenes next year.

"Mr. Leininger is a big supporter of vouchers, so he went out and bought himself a school district" to experiment with, Mr. O'Sullivan said.

Sponsors of the Horizon scholarships acknowledged their interest in state action on vouchers. They said the Edgewood program will remain in effect for 10 years or until the legislature enacts a voucher program that provides similar benefits to at-risk children.

District Concerned

Edgewood district officials were hardly jumping for joy last week at the prospect that hundreds of students might leave the public school system. The district receives annual state aid of about $5,000 per pupil.

Eulogio Rodriguez, the president of the Edgewood school board, told local reporters that the program "has been dumped on us."

Dolores Mu¤oz, the superintendent, said the sponsors waited until the morning of the April 22 announcement to inform district leaders about the plan.

"We've got a concern about the potential impact it will have on the improvement efforts in our district," she said in an interview with Education Week. "The improvement of the public schools must not be forgotten."

The district has been making progress since 1993, she said, when nine district schools were classified by the state as low-performing. The district is currently bracing for the impact of the pending closure of Kelly Air Force Base, and it faced a painful community debate in 1996 before it closed one of its three high schools because of declining enrollment.

Wendy Puriefoy, the president of the Washington-based Public Education Network, a coalition of local foundations that aid public school systems, expressed concern about the scholarship program.

"They don't care about student achievement, they care about advancing an agenda," she said of the organizers.

But Mr. Steiger of the CEO America Foundation said privately backed voucher plans are ultimately intended to force public schools to improve.

"We want to inject an element of outside pressure from the private sector," he said. "The Edgewood public school district is going to have to compete for and fight for those students. We think they will rise to the occasion."

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