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Supporters of Privately Financed Vouchers Tout Progress

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New York

Privately financed school voucher programs for poor children continue to grow in number and are becoming even more important in the policy debate over government voucher proposals, according to participants at a conference here last week.

Such privately backed programs have been around since the early 1990s, when J. Patrick Rooney, the chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Co., started one for poor children in his hometown of Indianapolis.

 Fritz S. Steiger

Since then, the so-called Golden Rule model has spread to more than 30 other cities. The vouchers, or scholarships, typically cover about half of a student's tuition to a private school, up to about $2,000. Most such programs have lotteries to award the vouchers to eligible low-income students from throughout a city.

"It's no longer a fringe issue," said Fritz S. Steiger, the president of the CEO America Foundation, a Bentonville, Ark.-based organization that supports such programs. "It's become a mainstream issue."

The organization sponsored the conference here, which had an emphasis on privately funded voucher programs in New York City and throughout New York state.

Mr. Steiger said some 12,000 students are being aided nationwide through Golden Rule-style programs, with 45,000 on waiting lists.

The total spending on such programs has been close to $45 million, he said. He expects that eight to 10 new programs could start by fall.

Meanwhile, the benefactors of a private voucher program in Washington are planning a major expansion to as many as 30 cities.

That project, involving Wall Street financier Theodore J. Forstmann, Wal-Mart fortune heir John Walton, and others, could involve a contribution of as much as $100 million over several years, Mr. Steiger said.

But a new model is emerging that focuses on a single school or school district. In Albany, N.Y., last year, New York City philanthropist Virginia Gilder offered scholarships to every student in a troubled elementary school. More than one-third of the pupils at Giffen Elementary School accepted the $2,000 vouchers provided by her $1 million gift.

And last month in San Antonio, a business foundation said it will put up $50 million over 10 years to allow every low-income student in the Edgewood school district to attend a private school or a public school in another district. ("Group Offers $50 Million for Vouchers," April 29, 1998).

Ms. Gilder told the CEO America conference that she has committed to aiding the students from Giffen Elementary for at least five years.

She said she declined an invitation from the principal of the public school to visit.

"I said I had no idea about how to rehabilitate a dysfunctional school," Ms. Gilder said. "I wished her well and that was that. I was interested in school choice."

Leaders of New York City's School Choice Scholarship program said they avoid confrontation with the public school system. The program is aiding about 1,300 students this year, with another 1,000 chosen to join next school year.

The program received more than 20,000 applications for the vouchers, which are worth as much as $1,400 a year.

Bruce Kovner, the chairman of the New York program, said public school leaders such as city Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew have "not said anything positive about us."

But the private-school-choice program has the support of at least one very prominent elected official: Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Speaking at a conference breakfast, the mayor recalled the rancor that erupted several years ago when Roman Catholic leaders in the city offered to educate some students from the city's overcrowded classrooms.

Because of legal concerns, that offer wasn't accepted, but the idea eventually evolved into the School Choice Scholarship program.

"People said, 'Why are you walking out on the public school system [by supporting private voucher proposals]?'" Mr. Giuliani said last week. "I said: 'Wait a minute. I'm not elected to run the public school system or keep it together as a monopoly. I'm elected to help the children of New York City.'"

The privately financed choice program "has created a sense of competition that is very healthy for the public school system," the mayor argued.

As for the criticism that such programs help only a relatively small number of students while sapping resources that could go to the public schools, Mr. Giuliani said, "The way you help people is one at a time."

"Helping 1,000 or 2,000 students in and of itself is a terrific thing,"he said.

--MARK WALSH

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