Ind. Firm’s Offer To Fund Tuitions Stirs Schools’ Ire

By Jonathan Weisman — September 04, 1991 7 min read

In pledging to provide $1.2 million to poor parents who wish to send their children to private schools, an Indianapolis insurance company has sparked a citywide debate over parental choice and business’s role in education.

The Golden Rule Insurance Company announced last month that it had established the CHOICE Charitable Trust to cover up to half the tuition tab-up to $800 per student- for 500 underprivileged 1st through 8th graders at the private or parochial school of their parents’ choice.

Golden Rule’s contribution was to be used this year to help send 250 public school students who qualify for free or reduced- price lunches to private schools and to lighten the tuition burden of another 250 already enrolled in private education. Because of the overwhelming response, however, Golden Rule has already expanded the program to cover 686 students, half from the public schools. Even with the expansion, 88 students remain on a waiting list.

Critics of the company’s program, designed to run for at least three years, have reacted quickly and vocally. Instead of spending money to create a program that will have the effect of undermining public education, they say, Golden Rule should donate the $1.2 million to the city schools.

“We need to support our public schools,” said A.D. Pinckney, president of the Indianapolis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “That is the bottom line, and to do anything else will be disastrous.”

Despite such criticisms, interest in the program has been high. Within 3 ½ days of the company’s announcement, 1,076 application forms had been requested, according to Golden Rule’s chairman, J. Patrick Rooney.

In light of the fact that students who wish to participate in the program remain on a waiting list, Golden Rule executives have exhorted other Indianapolis businesses to help expand the program. Corporate scholarship support for minority and underprivileged children is nothing new.

The Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust and the Washington-based Black Student Fund solicit corporate donors to provide scholarships administered by member private schools. The Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools, based in Seattle, and the St. Paul-based Minnesota Independent School fund do likewise.

What makes Golden Rule’s plan unique and controversial is the fact that the sponsors have couched the program in the rhetoric of parental choice.

“Many companies have thrown money at failing public school systems in so-called public-private partnerships,” Patrick Keleher, president of the pro-parental-choice group TEACH America, wrote in Golden Rule’s pre s release announcing the program. “Others have admirably supported effective private inner-city schools with funds for operations and scholarships.” “But,” he continued, “this is the first instance I know of in which a company has directly empowered moderate- and low-income parents, on a large scale, to help their children escape bad city schools.”

‘A Bum Rap’?

Administrators of the Indianapolis public schools and several black associations in the city have mobilized in response to Golden Rule’s attacks on the quality of the city’s school.

The Indianapolis Council on Educating Black Children and the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter last month urged parents to shun the grants, and they asked Golden Rule officials to meet with school officials to find another use for the $1.2 million. They suggested, for instance, that the money could be used to rehire some of the 146 teachers being laid off by the 47,500-student school district this year.

Thomas W. Binford, the president of Community Leaders Allied for Superior Schools, which supports public-education reform, said that Mr. Rooney has been exaggerating the poor quality of education provided by the public schools, and he charged that the choice program would undermine public education. Shirl E. Gilbert 2nd, superintendent of the Indianapolis public schools, complained that the loss of 250 students would cost the district $1 million in state aid.

In addition, he warned, students accepting grants could find that, at the end of Golden Rule’s three-year commitment, the money would dry up, and the exit from and return to public school would be disruptive. And, Mr. Gilbert contended, only the public schools have the range of academic and social programs necessary to meet the needs of underprivileged and minority children.

“Mr. Rooney’s action has tended to have people think he is saving kids from the ravages of public education,” Mr. Gilbert said, “And I think that’s a bum rap.”

While 54 percent of the city’s public elementary-school students test below grade level on national examinations, test scores have been rising, according to CLAS’s documents. Almost 90 percent of the 18,667 public-school students who took the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress this year passed, compared with 82 percent in 1990.

‘Forked Tongues’

Mr. Rooney insisted in an interview that he is not trying to undermine the public school system. Instead, he said, he is seeking to improve the quality of the city’s schools by providing the competition they need to prod them into meaningful reform.

Agreeing with Mr. Rooney’s reasoning, choice supporters and private- school officials lauded Golden Rule’s efforts.

State Representative Polly Williams of Wisconsin, the former welfare mother who designed Milwaukee’s ground-breaking choice program, said black groups opposing the plan are “speaking with a forked tongue.”

The problem, she said, is that many groups say they represent black people but imply that poor and minority parents cannot decide for themselves what is best for their children.

Private- and parochial-school leaders echoed that sentiment. “This is making an important statement about parents,” said Joyce McCray, executive director of the Council for American Private Education. “There’s always been this weird bias in the choice discussions that really does assume that poor parents can’t be good parents. That’s a horrendous bias, and [Golden Rule speaks] directly to it.”

According to Timothy Ehrgott, coordinator of the CHOICE Charitable Trust, about 98 percent of the 500 grant recipients have enrolled in parochial schools.

He said many of the recipients have signed up for parochial schools, instead of private schools, because they tend to be close to poor neighborhoods. Also, he said, because the $800 cap would leave a hefty tuition burden uncovered, none of the grant recipients has tried to enroll in any of the city’s prestigious private schools.

G. Joseph Peters, coordinator of school services for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, whose schools will receive the majority of the grant dollars, conceded that the program is a godsend for the financially troubled I Catholic school system.

“If we got 100 new students,” he said, “that would be unprecedented.”

After a concerted push for new students, the archdiocese’s school enrollment increased last year by 85. Golden Rule will provide an additional 200 this year, and, if the program does attract more donors, Mr. Peters said additional Catholic school classrooms may be needed.

“I’m not going to say this is our salvation, but we will be able to help a few more families out,” said Robert Rash, principal of Saint Simon the Apostle School, who said spaghetti dinners and bake sales last year raised $6,000. This year, he estimated, the CHOICE Charitable Trust will provide the school with $8,000 to $9,000.

A Choice Model

Mr. Rooney readily admits to the political agenda his opponents accuse him of promulgating.

He said he hopes the Indianapolis program serves as an experiment that could eventually lead to publicly funded vouchers that would allow parents to send their children to private schools. He also said he hopes that corporations throughout the country will embrace the Golden Rule model.

The insurance company’s program has already served as a model for a similar undertaking in Michigan. Richard Posthumus, the Republican majority leader in the Michigan Senate, announced last month that he would use the Vandenberg Foundation, which he started earlier this year, to underwrite pilot programs in Grand Rapids and Detroit modeled after Golden Rule’s effort.

Frank Venuto, a Lansing lawyer who represents Golden Rule in Michigan and a friend of Mr. Posthumus, said the senator will use his influence as chairman of the commerce committee to get corporate hacking for the program, which they hope will go statewide.

And buoyed by a favorable editorial in the Wall Street Journal last month that encouraged other businesses to follow suit, interest in the program is mounting, according to Mr. Rooney, who said he has fielded several calls from business representatives in Georgia, Louisiana, and elsewhere.

But business groups who have supported choice only in the framework of broad reform in the public school system remain leery.

“Our mission is to work with the the public schools and orient them toward restructuring and reforming,” Mr. Binford, the president of CLASS, said. “Golden Rule certainly has no aspects of its program that support the public schools, quite to the contrary,”

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1991 edition of Education Week