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The superintendent of the Houston school system has proposed turning to private schools as one option for dealing with serious overcrowding.

In a July memo to the school board, 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 Paige disputed that interpretation.

The superintendent of the 210,000-student district, the nation's sixth-largest, said such contracts with private schools would merely expand the existing practice of placing some special education and at-risk children in nonpublic schools. Houston administrators say they face a crisis because enrollment is creeping up each year, packing students in many parts of the city into 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.

In his memo, Paige said, "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."

Even supporters of the idea of contracting with private schools to serve some district students consider it at least a cousin of traditional 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 public 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.

Paige offered a number of other options for dealing with the overcrowding. They included extending the school day and year, cutting kindergarten to half a day, redrawing attendance boundaries, and using more portable classrooms. But his proposal to send some students to the private sector was clearly the attention-grabber.

Under the proposal, students who could not attend full neighborhood schools would be allowed to enroll in a school run by a "nondistrict educational provider." Last year, more than 2,600 students were bused to other schools because their neighborhood schools had reached capacity. Anticipating 2 percent enrollment growth, officials said the number is sure to be higher this year.

Participating private schools would have to accept the district's payment of $3,575--90 percent of the district's per-pupil expenditure--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," said Susan Sclafani, the district's chief of staff.

While the Houston proposal is unusual, it is not unprecedented. In Vermont, some districts without their own high schools have been paying tuition to private high schools for more than a century. And districts routinely place 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, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, said the Houston proposal sounded like a small 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 Gaines Jr., a Houston school board member. "We should not take public money and fund private institutions. There are other alternatives for the overcrowding."

Others argued that the district was attempting to do something the Texas legislature rejected 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, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers.

Fallon noted that "immediate litigation" would follow if the board approves the contracting plan. "They are punishing the public for the failure of the bond campaign," she said. "We have buildings that are underutilized because the board doesn't want to bite the bullet and redistrict."

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