Current Events

November 01, 1992 21 min read

Private Vouchers Help Many Flee Public Schools

Hundreds of children from low-income families enrolled in private schools for the first time this fall, thanks to a boomlet in local voucher programs funded by businesses, private foundations, and individuals.

Pupils in Atlanta, Little Rock, Milwaukee, San Antonio, and a number of other cities are the beneficiaries of an emerging movement designed to provide low-income parents with more choice in education.

“The business community is tapping into a huge market of low-income people who want to take their kids out of the public schools but don’t have the resources,” says Allyson Tucker of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Privately funded vouchers offer “a way for these kids to get out of failing schools and into private schools that offer a far superior education,” asserts Tucker, who has been tracking the trend.

The aims parallel those of proposed systems of publicly funded choice that would include private schools. But the sponsors of the new private-sector initiatives say they are unwilling to wait while state and federal lawmakers debate the merits of government vouchers for education. Although many observers believe that the private plans will never reach large numbers of people, they say the efforts are still influential.

Following are some recent developments:

  • The Georgia Public Policy Foundation last month announced a program that will provide grants of as much as $3,000 a year for private school tuition in the Atlanta metropolitan area; an anonymous donor gave $1 million to help establish the fund.
  • In Milwaukee, three major companies this past summer announced grants of $500,000 each over five years to boost a voucher program launched last spring with a $500,000, three-year grant by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
  • In the Little Rock area, a businessman has raised $50,000 for the Free To Choose Trust, which is helping 19 low-income children attend four local private schools this year.
  • And in San Antonio, the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation, financed by a total pledge of $1.5 million from three local businesses, is aiding more than 880 students at 76 private schools.

Most, if not all, of the privately funded choice programs have been inspired by the CHOICE Charitable Trust in Indianapolis, launched last year with a $1.2 million pledge by the Golden Rule Insurance Co. The trust made a three-year commitment to pay one-half of a pupil’s tuition up to $800. Close to 400 students used the vouchers last year to leave the public schools; another 350 already in private schools were awarded aid. The program has expanded to more than 900 pupils this year.

President Bush has applauded these private attempts at choice; he even invited some of their founders to the White House last June when he announced his proposal for experimental, federally funded vouchers.

Public school educators, on the other hand, have been wary. They fear the loss of state aid for children who leave the public system and have argued that the money would be better spent helping improve the public schools. “It’s a terribly destructive effort on the part of the private sector,” says Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools. “They can spend their money however they want, but these programs are not spending it in a way that helps us.”

School Choice Gaining Support

Advocates of a government supported voucher system were glowing earlier this fall following the release of a Gallup poll finding that 70 percent of Americans back a system under which parents could send their children to the public, private, or parochial school of their choice.

The level of support for such a voucher system, however, drops to 61 percent when respondents are told that it would be paid for by using “some of the tax money now going to public schools.”

Still, the findings seem to reflect a major shift in public opinion from just one year ago, when 50 percent of the respondents to a Gallup poll said they supported the voucher concept.

“We feel this is really good news,” says Frank Savage, executive director of the National Catholic Educational Association, which commissioned the survey. “The American people are saying `yes’ to parental choice in education.” The NCEA represents more than 200,000 educators serving 7.6 million students at all levels of Catholic education.

The Bush administration, which has championed the voucher concept, claimed some credit for the apparent change in opinion and used the survey results to bolster its case for a federal demonstration program. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander challenged Congress to “listen” to the public and enact the administration’s proposed “GI Bill for children,” which would give $1,000 vouchers to low- and middle-income parents in selected cities to pay for tuition in any public or private school.

California Allows Charter Schools

Despite strong opposition from the state’s teachers’ union, California in September became the second state in the nation to authorize teachers and others to create independently operated public schools under a contract or “charter” with a school district.

The California measure could lead to a far more extensive test of the charter-school concept than that provided by the first such law, passed in Minnesota last year. While the Minnesota law limits the number of charter schools to eight statewide, the California bill allows for the creation of 100 such schools. It also includes a provision allowing a district to convert all of its schools to charter status.

State lawmakers introduced the bill this year in part to head off support for a private school voucher initiative that will go before voters in 1994. The proposal would allow parents to send their children to a public, private, or parochial school of their choice partially at taxpayer expense. In contrast, charter schools would open up options for parents and teachers within the public school system.

Under the new act, charter schools would be exempt from most state regulations for traditional public schools. In exchange, they would have to specify their educational programs, the outcomes they want students to meet, and how progress toward those goals will be measured. Each charter school would be a school of choice, with per-pupil funding—currently about $4,800—following the student. Backers say the idea will encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods and improve student learning. “I think it’s going to be very helpful,” says California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig.

But opponents—including teachers’ union leaders in California and Minnesota and a number of other states where charter schools have been proposed—charge that the plans fail to provide adequate protections for employees and students. They fear that charter schools could divert money from existing programs and result in a loss of control for school boards and unions.

“There is no proof,” says Del Weber, president of the California Teachers Association, “that opening charter schools provides any benefits to students that are not already provided in their local school districts.”

Cuts Hamper Chelsea Project

After three years of managing the Chelsea, Mass., public schools, Boston University has laid much of the groundwork for accomplishing its goals, but the city’s schools have yet to see significant improvement in student test scores, teacher and student attendance, or high school graduation rates.

This is the conclusion of a new report submitted by the university to the state legislature. In it, university officials stress that their unprecedented partnership with the school system has been hampered by the city’s financial collapse. Although the university assumed the management of the system with the understanding that funding would continue at or above the 1989 levels, the report notes, the recession and local political battles forced Chelsea to the brink of bankruptcy in 1991.

The school department was forced to lay off 50 of Chelsea’s 302 teachers and to increase class size, in some instances to 40 students. Last summer, the state placed the city in receivership.

The fiscal crisis, the progress report states, changed the nature of the partnership. “The university has found itself not only working to transform a school system,” it says, “but also fighting for the very survival of the school system.”

While spending a considerable amount of time cutting the budget, the university has made progress in each of 17 goals it set for Chelsea, the report says. For example, the city’s teachers have worked with BU faculty members to overhaul the curriculum and have received training at the university in the subjects they teach. In addition, the report notes, their pay has increased by 26 percent since the partnership began.

The centerpiece of BU’s approach is its emphasis on getting children ready to learn with early-childhood programs, health initiatives, family-literacy projects, and outreach to family day-care providers. The report contends that “dramatic increases “ in students’ test scores will be seen when the children who have completed the entire preschool program take the state’s basic-skills test in grades 3, 6, and 9. Later, it predicts, student scores on the SATs will also rise.

“To expect overnight success,” the report warns, “is to do an injustice to the very principles on which the partnership is built.”

He Wants To Join The Girls’ Team

John Williams wanted to play competitive field hockey. But when the 16-year-old boy asked officials at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa., to let him try out for the girls’ team—the sport was not one of the 10 offered to boys—they refused.

John wouldn’t take no for an answer; he sued, arguing that he was the victim of reverse discrimination. To counter years of gender inequities in athletics, Pennsylvania has permitted girls to vie for spots on boys’ non-contact sports teams but not the other way around.

U.S. District Judge E. Mac Troutman agreed with John. Noting that girls could compete on 22 teams—10 girls teams, 10 boys teams, and two coed teams—compared with 12 for the boys, Troutman determined that girls have more athletic opportunities than boys do. He said that John has the constitutional right to try out for the girls’ hockey team.

The district has appealed the decision. It contends that girls’ participation in sports could be restricted if they must compete with boys, who generally have a physiological edge. “You are essentially knocking the female athletes back to the second-class-citizen level,” says Stuart Knade, a lawyer for the district. >

No One Told Her It Would Hurt

The first girl to try out for the varsity football team in the Carroll County, Md., school system has filed a lawsuit against the district, alleging that no one had warned her of the dangers of the sport, from which she sustained serious injuries.

In the suit filed in circuit court, Tawana Hammond charged that the district failed in its duty to warn students of the potential for serious or disabling injuries as a result of playing football. Moreover, the suit contends that Tawana’s coach had erroneously informed her that she was covered by a health insurance policy even though her family had not yet paid the premium.

The complaint seeks medical expenses that Tawana and her family incurred when she was injured during a practice scrimmage in 1989. The school district offered no comment on the suit.

U.S. Ranks High In International Study Of Reading

In a rare piece of good news on an international comparison of student achievement, students in the United States outperformed those from nearly every other country in a 32-nation study of reading literacy.

The study, the largest of its kind ever conducted, found that, among 9-year-olds, only those from Finland outperformed those from the United States, while American 14-year-olds were outscored only by those from Finland, France, Sweden, and New Zealand.

Previous international comparisons have shown American students ranking at or near the bottom in mathematics and science and had sparked widespread concern over the quality of education in the United States.

Alan Purves, the U.S. director of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which conducted the new study, notes that the United States’ ranking in reading may have benefited from the fact that few limited-English-proficient students were tested. Nevertheless, he adds, the study highlights a success story in American education. “We’ve done a pretty good job teaching reading,” he says.

Researchers point out that the international study appears to support the view that recent trends in American reading instruction—including an emphasis on literature rather than word-decoding skills—contribute to reading literacy. Greater access to books in homes and school libraries, more time spent on reading instruction, and an emphasis on silent reading in class, the study found, were all associated with high scores on the test.

Copies of the report are available for $4 each, plus postage, from the IEA International Coordinating Center, University of Hamburg, Sedanstr. 19, D-2000, Hamburg 13, Germany.

Teachers Find Many Students Are Unprepared

More than half of all public school teachers think at least a quarter of their students are unprepared for grade-level work, according to a survey of 1,000 teachers conducted last spring by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. The survey, which focused on issues of student preparation, found that many teachers are dissatisfied with students’ abilities and worry that they are ill equipped to deal with the range of students’ problems.

About 55 percent of the teachers said they consider all, most, or at least one-quarter of their students unprepared for the studies. That figure held steady for teachers at all levels.

The study found wide differences, however, depending on the number of minority and low-income students in teachers’ classrooms. Forty-two percent of teachers with few or no minority students said a significant number of students were unprepared. That number jumped to 55 percent among teachers with “some” minority students and to 78 percent among teachers whose students are mostly or all minority.

Similarly, while 23 percent of the teachers with few or no low-income students said a sizable portion of their class was unprepared, about 60 percent of teachers with some low-income students and 77 percent of those with mostly or all low-income students cited significant unpreparedness.

The survey found that fewer than a third of the teachers who noted classroom problems thought that their own education and training had made them “well prepared” to deal with the social factors contributing to students’ difficulties.

Copies of the survey are available without charge from Metropolitan Life, 1992 Teachers’ Survey, 1 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010.

Channel One Stays Alive In California

In a closely watched legal test of Whittle Communication’s Channel One classroom news show, a California state judge has declined to ban the program from public schools in San Jose. The ruling is likely to open the way for any public school in the state to sign up for the controversial 12-minute show, which contains two minutes of commercials.

The Knoxville, Tenn.-based media company had signed up fewer than 70 public schools in California, largely because of a threat by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig to cut off a portion of state education funding if schools showed commercials to students.

Honig, along with the state parent-teacher association and two teachers in the East Side Union High School District, had sued the school system seeking to have its Channel One contract declared a violation of state compulsory-education laws because of the advertising included in the show.

Judge Jeremy Fogel of Santa Clara County Superior Court said, however, that he was not convinced that the inclusion of two minutes of commercials in the show was illegal by itself and refused to issue an injunction. The advertisements, he wrote, “appear trivial in a world in which the rest of students’ lives is literally saturated with commercial inducements of all kinds.”

But the judge stated that teachers in the San Jose district must be given the opportunity to opt out of showing the program in their classrooms, that students and parents must be informed in writing that the students are not required to view the show, and that the school must provide a regular alternative to the program, such as a supervised study hall. The judge said that state law would be violated only if students were directly or indirectly coerced to view commercials. Fogel also retained jurisdiction over the matter, so he could consider future evidence on the show’s impact.

Officials at Whittle, which provides television monitors, video recorders, and other equipment to schools in exchange for their teenage audience, say Fogel’s decision will permit the expansion of Channel One throughout California. The show is currently available in more than 12,000 middle and high schools nationwide.

State-By-State Dropout Rates

The first state-by-state report on dropout rates shows that the percentages of 16- to 19-year-olds who have not completed high school and are not enrolled in school far exceeded the national average in five states.

Those states are Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, and Nevada. Their dropout rates range from 14.1 percent in Georgia to 14.9 percent in Nevada. Nationally, 11.2 percent of people in the 16- to 19-year-old age group are not enrolled in school or do not have a high school diploma.

In contrast, the five states with the lowest dropout figures—Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming—have rates ranging from 4.3 percent to 6.6 percent.

While previous reports included only national data, the new report, using data from the 1990 Census, is the first to break down dropout rates for all 50 states, every county, and for 250 of the nation’s largest cities. It was released in September by the U.S. Department of Education.

Researchers have pointed out that dropout rates, under the definition of dropout used in this study, tend to be highest in areas of high immigration because many immigrants arrive with little or no education. According to the new report, 43 percent of Hispanics ages 16 to 24 born outside the United States lacked diplomas, compared with only 17 percent of Hispanics who were first-generation Americans.

Disabled Students Score A Victory

The debate over whether to place children with disabilities in the regular classroom or segregate them in special education settings is one of the most contentious in education, so, not surprisingly, it’s spilling over into the courts.

At least two decisions by federal judges this year have favored what is called “full inclusion” of severely and moderately disabled students in classrooms with non-disabled pupils. In August, a federal court judge in a New Jersey case ruled that the Clementon school district should fully explore ways to teach students with disabilities in regular classrooms before segregating them in special education classes. And earlier in the year, a federal judge in California ordered the Sacramento City school system to teach a retarded child in a regular classroom.

Until recently, such students were commonly taught in separate settings or were removed from class to receive help in special education resource rooms. But a growing number of special educators and advocates have begun to call on schools to serve children with disabilities in regular classrooms in their neighborhood schools. As a result, observers say, the two rulings this year may be the first of many to come.

“All that’s happened is that the philosophy among special educators—or at least the predominant or loud view—seems to be full inclusion,” says Perry Zirkel, a professor of both education and law at Lehigh University. “And that’s percolating up to the judicial system.”

In the most recent case, U.S. District Judge John Gerry said that Clementon, N.J., school officials violated federal special education law by failing to consider whether Rafael Oberti, an 8-yearold with Down’s syndrome, could have managed in regular class with special aides, a special curriculum, or behavior-management plan.

Clementon officials contend, however, that Rafael’s disabilities are so severe and his classroom behavior so disruptive that he can only be educated in a separate class.

Gerry disagreed. “Rafael should not have to earn his way into an integrated school setting by first functioning successfully in a segregated setting,” he wrote. “Inclusion is a right, not a privilege for a select few.” The judge based his ruling on the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which calls for serving children in the “least restrictive environment,” and on section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which guarantees disabled people access to services provided by federally funded agencies.

The district is appealing the ruling.

Teachers Wanted

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which is currently forging a national certification system for teachers, is recruiting teachers to take part in a 1993-94 field test of two new assessment packages. Specifically, the board is looking for English language arts teachers or generalists who teach 11- to 15-year-old students. There will be no charge to the candidates selected to participate, and those who meet the board’s standards will be among the nation’s first board-certified teachers. Interested teachers should contact LaDonna Leyva, Field Test Network, NBPTS, 300 River Place, Suite 600, Detroit, MI 48207

Alternative Paths

Forty states now offer alternatives to the traditional education school route to teacher licensure, up dramatically from only eight in 1983, according to a new study conducted by C. Emily Feistritzer, director of the National Center for Education Information, and her associate, David Chester. While the programs vary widely, the newest alternatives require formal instruction in the theory and practice of teaching along with mentoring arrangements that pair novice teachers with experienced classroom veterans. The center estimates that 40,000 people were certified to teach through alternative means between 1985 and 1992, more than half of them during the past two years.

A National Cadre

A long-range project by the Annenberg Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to foster innovative uses of technologies in precollegiate science and mathematics has announced a $1.5 million three-year grant to help the Quality Education for Minorities Network develop a national cadre of minority teachers in those subjects. The teachers would take a leading role in curriculum reform. The effort will be led by Mary Hatwood Futrell, the immediate past president of the National Education Association and currently a fellow in the Center for the Study of Education and National Development at George Washington University.

A Small Gain

Overall enrollment in the nation’s private independent schools rose by 1 percent during the last school year to a total of about 375,000 students, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. Enrollment had risen 0.7 percent in each of the two previous years. Independent schools in the Southwest had the greatest gains last year—5 percent—followed by schools in the Southeast, West, mid-Atlantic states, and Midwest. Schools in New York state, New Jersey, and New England experienced declines of about 1.5 percent.

Applications Rise

Seventy-one percent of 622 colleges and universities responding to a recent survey said the number of applications they received for admission this fall increased over last year. In 1991, 50 percent of 720 responding institutions reported an increase over the previous year. Daniel Saracino, president of the National Association of College Admission Counselors, which conducted the surveys, says he believes students are seeing higher education as a “buyer’s market and are shopping around by applying to more schools then ever before.”

New Law Under Fire

Civil-rights groups in Georgia have criticized a new state law requiring districts to ask students for their Social Security numbers. The measure was designed to help the state better track students and dropout rates, but the critics argue that it is likely to have an adverse impact on homeless children who lack documentation and immigrant children who may fear deportation. The state school board responded by prohibiting schools from asking students for their numbers if their parents object. The critics assert, however, that schools have been ignoring the directive and turning children away if they do not produce their numbers.

Grenade Alarm

Elementary teachers at Public School 214 in New York City, fearing for their safety and that of their students, have started carrying hand-held sirens intended to ward off intruders. Seventy-five of the palm-sized alarms were purchased, at the teachers’ request, by their union, the United Federation of Teachers. The $10 device, which is encased in a leather pouch, is activated by pulling a pin, similar to that on a military hand grenade. It emits a shriek like a smoke detector. Teachers are encouraged to toss the so-called “grenade alarm” into a hallway to attract attention if they or their students encounter an intruder.

Three Of A Kind

Jackie, Judy, and Patty Conomon started life together and have been doing everything together ever since. That is until this past fall, when the 22-year-old identical triplets had to split up and strike out on their own. But even then there was a certain stick-together quality about it: All three became teachers. Patty teaches 2nd grade and Judy kindergarten in the Cecil County public schools in Delaware. Jackie teaches 3rd grade in the Red Clay school district, also in Delaware. Will they pull a fast one on their students? “We haven’t done anything yet,” says Patty. “But we’ll probably pull something.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Current Events