Atlanta Plan Shows Benefits, Drawbacks of Private School Choice

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This article is one in an occasional series on new arrangements for providing public education.

By Lynn Olson

ATLANTA--The first thing a visitor notices about Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy are the gleaming linoleum floors, a visible reminder of the premium placed here on order and discipline.

But the second and far more obvious trait is the pervasive religious atmosphere, or what Headmaster Bill Christian refers to as "mixing faith with learning.''

It is a statement that would make many public school educators profoundly uncomfortable. But Southwest's Christian identity is a drawing card for parents of the school's 178 students--19 of whom are receiving tuition aid this fall as part of an unusual experiment with private school vouchers.

Known as the Children's Education Foundation, the program here is one of a small but growing number of privately funded initiatives that provide low-income families with scholarships to send their children to private or parochial schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 16, 1992.)

Advocates of such programs describe them as a helping hand for needy students who might otherwise be stuck in ailing, inner-city public schools.

But critics, pointing to the relatively modest size of the vouchers and the small number of children served, say the plans offer a false hope to most low-income families.

Such programs are striving to make their mark at a time when the idea of publicly funded vouchers has suffered some blows. Voters in Colorado, for example, last week rejected an initiative to provide state-funded vouchers for public, private, or parochial schools. (See related story, page 18.)

And with the defeat of President Bush, private school choice has lost its highest-profile booster.

Nonetheless, school-choice advocates insist that their agenda is flourishing at the grassroots level. This week, backers of the privately funded initiatives will gather in Indianapolis for a nationwide conference designed to help replicate their efforts.

'Only Choice To Drop Out'

Programs like the one in Atlanta offer a glimpse of how private school choice might work in a publicly financed system--highlighting both the substantial risks and the potential benefits.

Like most of its counterparts nationwide, the Children's Education Foundation here got its inspiration from J. Patrick Rooney, the chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Company who founded the first such privately funded choice program in 1991 in Indianapolis.

Mr. Rooney created the program after concluding that the public schools were either unable or unwilling to improve. That complaint is echoed by Matthew J. Glavin, the president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, the free-market think tank that launched Atlanta's program.

"The alleged reforms that have been instituted by the public school establishment haven't created any change,'' Mr. Glavin contended in a recent interview. "We still see low test scores. We still see high dropout rates. The fastest-growing portion of the state-university budget in Georgia is in remedial education.''

"People are getting fed up,'' he added. "For an awful lot of low-income children in Atlanta right now, the only choice those children have is to drop out.''

42 Participating Schools

But if the Children's Education Foundation is a door to a brighter future, it is one open to a lucky few.

The program now provides assistance to only 198 children out of the more than 380,000 in public and private schools in the metropolitan area. There are already close to 1,000 students on the waiting list.

Most of the scholarships are limited to half the cost of a private school tuition, or a maximum of $3,000 each.

In June, Mr. Glavin managed to persuade an anonymous donor to provide $1 million to launch the effort. The money will guarantee the existing scholarships for the next four years.

Eventually, the foundation would like to raise a minimum of $5 million, which Mr. Glavin claimed could help send another 500 students to private or parochial schools.

Although Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, a K-12 school with a separate early learning center, has attracted one of the largest groups of scholarship students, 42 private and sectarian schools have accepted youngsters through the program.

They range from the prestigious Woodward Academy--one of the area's most expensive preparatory schools--to the Sister Clara Mohammed School, an Islamic-fundamentalist school in southeast Atlanta.

Of the 42 schools that have accepted voucher students, 37 have a religious affiliation. Most are either Roman Catholic or Christian schools,
reflecting the overall makeup of private schools in the metropolitan area.

Such sectarian roots are not a problem as long as the vouchers remain privately funded. But the question of whether tax dollars should support parents who want to send their children to parochial schools goes to the heart of the debate about private school choice.

'How Are They Going To Learn?'

For the parents in the Atlanta program, many of whom are single, the values orientation of the religious schools is part of their attraction.

"I want my children to be raised in the nurturing admonition of Jesus Christ,'' said Sherry Williams, a parent with three children at Southwest.

Ms. Williams and others described the vouchers as a way out of public schools they regard as unsafe, uncaring, and overwhelmed by their many and conflicting mandates.

Joy Burroughs, a small, softspoken woman who was forced to place her two children in the public schools after her husband lost his job, said, "When you go into any public school, a lot of things are just out of order.''

"There wasn't any security there,'' she added, "no motivation to excel.''

When her oldest child skipped public school, Gladys Porter said, no one told her. In contrast, after her son failed to turn in his homework at Southwest Atlanta Christian Acade my for three nights in a row, she received a phone call from the teacher.

"A lot of public school teachers don't have the time when classes are overcrowded,'' Ms. Williams acknowledged. But she added: "When your child is sent home with one page of homework, and they're through in 10 minutes--at any grade--how are they going to learn?''

'Buying Bureaucracy'

Mr. Glavin emphasized that the Children's Education Foundation does not offer parents a free ride. Since for most families the scholarship amounts to only half of the school's tuition, the remainder must be paid for by the parents themselves.

Unlike other privately financed programs, the foundation has paid for the full costs of tuition in a few cases.

The average size of the vouchers to date is $1,485, which reflects the low fees charged at many of the participating schools.

The smallest award was for $754 to the Berean Center Christian School; the largest, for a full $7,275 scholarship, went to the Woodward Academy. By comparison, the average per-pupil cost in the Atlanta public schools last year was $5,610.

Voucher advocates argue that the public schools squander tax dollars and that private schools can offer a better education at less cost.

An analysis published by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation last year found that from 1970 to 1990, education spending in Georgia increased 685 percent. But the amount going directly to instruction dropped from 76 cents to 52 cents per dollar.

"Taxpayers in this state have been told that we were investing in education,'' Mr. Glavin said. "What we ended up buying was bureaucracy.''

Extended Families Help Out

Despite the limited size of the scholarships, many parents participating in the program here said the financial help made the difference between sending their children to public or private schools.

This is particularly true for families with more than one child. The foundation guarantees vouchers for all siblings in a family.

The St. Anthony School is located on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard in the heart of black Atlanta. The 172-student school, which is 99 percent black, is one of the oldest Catholic schools in the city.

For many families, Nancy Pearson, the school's headmaster, said, tuition is an "extended-family effort.'' Grandparents, aunts, and uncles frequently contribute to the $2,664 fee for non-Catholic students.

What that buys them is a traditional, college-preparatory curriculum that emphasizes sustained silent reading and values.

Out of the 15 voucher students now at the school--seven of whom are new this year--Ms. Pearson said, "I may have lost 50 percent of them had it not been for the financial support of the foundation. The other 50 percent would have had struggles that you could not believe.''

Faced with financial burdens of their own, Catholic schools like St. Anthony have been among the biggest supporters of private school vouchers. Ms. Pearson acknowledged that the money from the foundation has helped her program. But she maintained that the larger benefit is to the families themselves.

In contrast, critics worry that vouchers could exacerbate the differences between the education that rich and poor children receive, by creating two classes of schools--bare-bones academies for the poor and well-endowed facilities for the rich, who could afford to supplement government-sponsored scholarships with their own earnings.

The extent to which the Catholic schools have embraced vouchers can be seen in Atlanta, where schools like St. Anthony worked diligently to let their parishioners know about the scholarships and actively encouraged them to apply.

Issue of Accountability

But the Atlanta program raises an even larger question, which is how to maintain accountability for the quality of education that children receive under a voucher system.

At present, the Children's Education Foundation lodges that responsibility solely in the hands of parents.

Beyond providing a list of the private schools willing to participate in the program--which includes phone numbers, tuition figures, religious affiliation, and grades taught--the children's foundation makes no attempt to monitor the quality of educational services or a school's truth in advertising.

"Our role is simply to provide a scholarship for a family,'' Mr. Glavin said. "It's the family's responsibility to know what the school is all about.''

Schools are also free to use whatever admissions criteria they choose, as long as they do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or income. And they can charge as much as they want.

"Our condition is you're a legally operating school,'' Mr. Glavin said. "That's basically it.''

'Parents Are Very Astute'

To qualify for the program, children must be entering kindergarten through 8th grade, belong to families with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, and live in one of the five counties in the metropolitan area--Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett.

Families were selected on a modified first-come, first-served basis. Applications were numbered as they came in, and scholarships were awarded on a daily basis by lottery.

Two-thirds of the recipients must be new to private schools, so that the scholarships do not benefit primarily those families whose children are already in private or parochial settings.

At Southwest Atlanta Christian, for example, 11 of the voucher students were new this fall; the other eight were returning.

The parents of students accepted into the program have to provide some form of income verification to the foundation. Every month, participating schools sign the back of a family's voucher form to certify that the student is attending classes and that the parents are paying their share of the tuition.

But it is up to parents to select a school, get their children into it, and pull them out if things do not go well. "Parents are very astute,'' argued Jim F. Martin, the former director of special projects for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. "They did a great deal of self-selection.''

Nonetheless, it is doubtful that many politicians would be willing to leave quite so much accountability in the hands of parents and individual schools if public money were spent on voucher programs.

The only existing publicly funded voucher program is in Milwaukee, where up to 1,000 students are eligible to attend private, nonsectarian schools at state expense. Schools that have chosen to participate in the program face significantly more regulation than their nonparticipating counterparts, according to John Witte, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who is evaluating the program for the state.

Even so, one of the participating private schools folded midway through the Milwaukee program's first year because of unexpected financial and organizational difficulties, leaving some 150 voucher students to make other arrangements for their education.

The degree to which the Atlanta foundation is not familiar with the schools that voucher students attend was brought home during a recent visit to the Southwest Academy, when it became clear that the school's headmaster and the foundation's officers were meeting each other for the first time and that foundation officials had never visited the school before.

'A Cruel Hoax'

Although Mr. Glavin admitted that it is important for parents to know what they are choosing in a full-blown choice program, he argued that the foundation has not had the time or the staffing to provide more than basic information.

Werner Rogers, the Georgia superintendent of education, said: "We have some excellent private schools in Georgia, and then there are just a bunch of fly-by-nighters. Those are the ones that I have a real concern about.''

"It's almost a cruel hoax on the community in Atlanta--particularly, the poor, minority community--to say that some foundation is going to hold out the hope of allowing children, through this grant, to attend one of the premier private schools in our community,'' Mr. Rogers added. "That's just not going to be the case.''

Transportation has also been a problem for some families, according to Sha De Kemas, a member of the Children's Education Foundation board of directors. The program does not provide any money to cover transportation costs.

Choice analysts have described the provision of transportation for children from low-income families as one of the essential features of an equitable choice program.

'You Are More Sensitive'

But the seven-member board of the children's foundation has tried to be sensitive to the needs of low-income and minority families in other ways. All board members must meet the same income requirements as voucher recipients. And they were responsible for many of the modifications in the program's design that have made it more user-friendly.

It was the board, for instance, that proposed offering full scholarships to some needy students and accepting all siblings within a family.

Ms. Kemas, who kept her own children out of school for six months last year because she couldn't afford the cost of private school tuition, said, "When you have a board that's composed of the same type of people who are applying ... you are more sensitive, because it could be you.''

Ms. Kemas's two oldest children are currently attending a private school with assistance from the foundation. But she had to go through the lottery process like everyone else.

Helping 'a Bunch of Kids'

Without any real oversight, it is hard to know whether the vouchers are purchasing a better education for children.

Mr. Christian, the headmaster of the Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, pulled out hand-drawn charts showing that the majority of youngsters at his school performed above the national average on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills last spring, except in grades 6 and 8.

But Mr. Glavin said he has no intention of commissioning an overall study on the program's effectiveness. Studies are under way on some of the other privately funded voucher programs in Indianapolis and San Antonio.

'Child Centered' Perspective

"Are we trying to prove anything?'' Mr. Glavin said. "No. We're just trying to help a bunch of kids.''

But if the primary motivation for the Children's Education Foundation is to rescue a handful of poor schoolchildren, the agenda of its parent, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, is far more sweeping.

Seated in his office, at a desk flanked by the flags of Georgia and the United States, and with a photo of himself and U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander on the bookshelves behind him, Mr. Glavin talked earlier this fall about a long-term blueprint for transforming education in the state.

In four years, he said, he would like the children's foundation to be obsolete, replaced by a state-funded voucher system that would include public, private, and parochial schools.

Last year, Mr. Glavin's think tank released a blueprint for reforming education in Georgia that included choice as only one piece of a multi-pronged agenda. Under the proposal, the state would adopt rigorous academic standards for all students and a new statewide assessment system to match.

Government funds would enable parents to choose any school--public, private, or parochial. But the public schools would be deregulated, so that they could compete with private ones on a more equal footing.

All schools participating in the choice program would have to administer the statewide assessments, whose results would be widely publicized for parents and employers.

"We've got to change our thinking from an institutional perspective to a child-centered one,'' Mr. Glavin argued. "If our goal is to preserve an institution, we've done a wonderful job of it. No matter how lousy it is, it still goes on and on.''

"But we're doing a terrible job of educating,'' he said.

Mr. Glavin claimed that there is widespread support for choice in the state. A telephone survey of 400 registered voters, conducted by the think tank in August, found that 55 percent approved of "allowing parents the choice of which school to send their children, whether public, private, or church-run, and having the state pay an equal amount for tuition to the school.''

In Fulton County, where Atlanta is located, 70.6 percent of those surveyed supported a voucher system.

'I Will Take the Option'

The children's foundation, Mr. Glavin said, has been a "wake-up call to the legislature'' about the backing for choice.

But others describe the program as more of a public-relations gimmick, and one that would have a limited impact on schools over all.

"On a small scale, I don't see it being a major threat,'' said Anita L. Brooks, the president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers. "If someone can come in and take 100 students and do something better for them, I don't think I'd be totally opposed to that.''

But the idea of providing public funds to support students attending private schools "is ridiculous,'' she added.

For backers of private school choice, meanwhile, public funding remains a crucial goal.

John E. Chubb, the co-author of a landmark 1990 study, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, that gave fuel to the school-choice movement, said, "I don't think you'll see a groundswell of interest'' in privately funded choice programs.

"They're controversial,'' he noted, "and businesses and philanthropists are not interested in inviting controversy.''

"I think all the folks involved in doing this hope that this is a catalyst for reform,'' he said, "and they don't see it as an answer in itself.''

And parents involved in the Atlanta program say they remain hopeful that in four years, when the private money runs out, a government-supported voucher system will be in place.

Ms. Williams said she feels sorry for those parents whose children are stuck in the public schools, or who remain on the foundation's waiting list. But she added: "I'm not willing to sacrifice my child's well-being for the public school system's mess.''

"If I have an option,'' she said, "I will take the option.''

Vol. 12, Issue 10

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