Hundreds Leave Public Schools With Privately Funded Vouchers

By Mark Walsh — September 16, 1992 7 min read

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

Pupils in Atlanta, Little Rock, Ark., 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,’' said Allyson Tucker, the manager of the center for educational policy at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Privately financed vouchers offer “a way for these kids to get out of failing schools and into private schools that offer a far superior education,’' added Ms. 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.

“There is a sense of frustration with the unwillingness of government to move’’ on measures such as vouchers, said Denis P. Doyle, an education analyst and a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis.

The private voucher plans “will never be a big phenomenon in numbers,’' he added, “but they are still influential.’'

The plans typically offer to pay about half the cost of private-school tuition for children whose families meet federal school-lunch criteria, with a maximum grant ranging from $750 to $3,000 per year. Individual programs report aiding as few as 19, and as many as 1,500, pupils for the new school year. Several say they have waiting lists of hundreds of students.

Recipients include both pupils transferring from public schools and low-income students who were already in private school.

Up to $3,000 in Atlanta

Among the 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 effort.
  • In Milwaukee, three major companies this 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 will help 19 low-income children attend four local private schools this year.

Most, if not all, of the privately funded choice programs have been inspired by the CHOICE Charitable Trust in Indianapolis, an effort launched a year ago by J. Patrick Rooney, the chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Company.

Praise and Wariness

U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander applauded the announcement of the Georgia program, and President Bush in June invited some of the founders of the private choice plans to the White House when he announced his proposal for experimental, federally funded vouchers.

Some public school educators, meanwhile, have been wary of even privately financed vouchers. They fear the loss of state aid for children who leave the public system, and have argued that the private dollars would be better spent helping to improve the public schools.

“It’s a terribly destructive effort on the part of the private sector,’' said Michael Casserly, the interim executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large, urban school districts.

“They can spend their money however they want, but these programs are not spending it in a way that helps us,’' he added.

Indianapolis Initiative

In the pioneering Indianapolis effort, Mr. Rooney of Golden Rule pledged $1.2 million of the insurance company’s money to help underwrite the private-school tuition of local children from poor families, either those seeking to leave the public schools or those struggling to pay their tuition. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991.)

The CHOICE Charitable Trust made a three-year commitment to pay one-half of a pupil’s tuition, up to $800. Close to 400 pupils 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.

The program, which has reported being flooded with queries from other cities, will sponsor a national conference on privately funded voucher programs on Nov. 13-14 in Indianapolis.

Replicated in San Antonio

San Antonio was the first city to replicate the Indianapolis program. This is the first year of the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation, financed by a total pledge of $1.5 million from three local businesses.

The program will aid 887 students at 76 private schools. They are getting vouchers for one-half of tuition, up to $750 per year, for three years.

Late last spring, the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee was the major donor behind a program called Partners Advancing Values in Education, or PAVE, which is providing half-tuition grants of up to $1,000 per child to more than 1,500 elementary school children.

In late July, Wisconsin Electric Power Company, Johnson Controls Inc., and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company announced they would donate $100,000 each per year for five years to PAVE.

In addition, the De Rance Foundation recently announced a grant of $400,000 a year for three years to expand the tuition-assistance program to Roman Catholic high schools in Milwaukee.

The PAVE initiative is separate from the state-funded program that enables several hundred low-income Milwaukee students to attend nonreligious private schools.

7,000 Applications

In Atlanta, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which describes itself as an independent think tank, has received more than 7,000 applications for its voucher program, the Children’s Education Foundation.

“We had anticipated about 2,000 applications,’' said Matthew Glavin, the president of the public-policy foundation. “There has been a huge response.’'

The Atlanta program has several variations on the others. The program will use its $1 million donation to aid 200 pupils this year, but with half-tuition grants that may be as large as $3,000, instead of the smaller amounts typical in most programs. Mr. Glavin noted that private schools in Atlanta tend to be more expensive than those in other cities where the voucher programs have been launched.

The Children’s Education Foundation has made a four-year commitment to pupils instead of the three years typical of the other programs, and some recipients will receive full scholarships, Mr. Glavin said.

“We are going to challenge the business community to provide every child who wants it access to the best education available,’' he said. “Too many children are exercising their choice to drop out.’'

‘Breaking the Monopoly’

Some programs are still searching for their own million-dollar benefactor, while making do in the meantime with small individual donations.

In Prince George’s County, Md., a suburb of Washington, a teacher at a Christian school is trying to raise$1 million for Charity for Choice, a voucher plan to aid low-income families there and in the District of Columbia. Mr. Rooney of Golden Rule helped launch the program and has pledged $1 for every $3 raised by the organizers, up to $10,000.

In Arkansas, a Jonesboro manufacturing-company owner, Blant Hurt, has raised $50,000, mostly through small donations, to launch a voucher program in Pulaski County, which includes Little Rock. The 19 pupils who are the first to benefit are getting a three-year commitment of half-tuition grants up to $1,000.

“I’m not doing this to give away money,’' Mr. Hurt said. “I believe in breaking the government’s monopoly on education.’'

Mr. Hurt, who acknowledged he is no fan of Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, said he would not mind if his experiment attracts more attention because it is going on in the state capital of the Democratic Presidential nominee, an opponent of publicly funded choice plans that include private schools.

“If he is serious about improving education, he’s got to turn to market forces,’' Mr. Hurt said. “I want to show people firsthand that choice can make a difference in their lives.’'