16,000 N.Y.C. Parents Apply for 1,300 Vouchers to Private Schools

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When Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani pledged to find a way to let many of New York City's struggling public school students attend private schools, critics protested that an elected official had no business promoting private education. Subscribe to Teacher Magazine

But that didn't dissuade parents excited by a scholarship program created after the mayor's challenge. More than 16,000 families applied for scholarships by the program's April 25 deadline.

Students won't learn until a lottery is held in mid-May if they are among the 1,300 to receive the financial aid. But organizers of the School Choice Scholarships Foundation already are taking the demand as a clear endorsement of school choice.

"It shows that the perception of the need of the program is high," said Bruce Kovner, the chairman of both the Caxton Corp. investment firm and the board overseeing the scholarship foundation. "We're going to have to go out and raise more money for next year."

The scholarship program evolved from a 5-year-old offer by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York's parochial system to educate about 1,000 of the lowest-performing students from the city's public schools. Last September, after the 1.1-million student public system announced that it faced extreme overcrowding, Mayor Giuliani said he liked the archdiocese's idea and would look into its feasibility. ("1,000 Slots at Catholic Schools in NYC Offered to Public Students," Sept. 18, 1996.)

A Private Effort

Since then, the emphasis has shifted from the possibility of using public funds to a charitable undertaking that a group of business leaders and philanthropies had been considering even before the mayor endorsed the idea. Such privately financed voucher programs exist in a handful of cities, including Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and San Antonio.

Many of the School Choice Scholarships Foundation's board members, and some of the individual donations, are from Wall Street investment firms. Some board members also sit on the board of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

The foundation has secured pledges for more than $7 million to pay for the scholarships, which are worth $1,400 and guaranteed for three years to students entering grades 1-5 in the fall. The pledges are enough to serve 1,300 students in some 1,000 families.

Eighty-five percent of the scholarships have been reserved for students now attending public schools whose performance data put them in the bottom half of the New York City system. To be eligible, applicants must qualify for the federal free-lunch program for schoolchildren.

Organizers have said they hope to raise enough money to offer more scholarships next year and to allow students to continue receiving aid beyond the guaranteed three years.

Unlike the original arrangement that the archdiocese envisioned, the recipients can use their scholarships at not just Catholic schools, but at any New York City private school they can get into. Because secular private schools tend to be more costly, though, it's still expected that many of the students will attend Catholic elementary schools in the city, where the average annual tuition is between $1,700 and $1,800.

But some public school supporters have questioned the backing the venture has gained from public officials.

"I have no problem with businesses raising private funds for private schools," said Sandra Feldman, the president of the United Federation of Teachers. "I think it's more of a problem when the mayor and his staff put a lot of time into it when the public schools have big needs."

Research Opportunity

What has drawn less attention is the opportunity the new program provides for education researchers. About $600,000 in grants has been pledged to underwrite the first year of study into the academic performance of the scholarship recipients.

By using a computer to pick the recipients at random from the applicant pool, experts say that the scholarship program presents an unusual opportunity to track students from similar backgrounds through different education paths.

"I honestly believe this is the most exciting study of school choice that's ever been done," said Harvard University's Paul E. Peterson, who is a principal investigator for the study.

Mr. Peterson's research on Milwaukee's private-school-choice program has figured prominently in the ongoing scholarly debate over the effects of vouchers on student achievement. ("Math Gains Noted for Students in Voucher Program," Feb. 19, 1997, and "New Studies on Private Choice Contradict Each Other," Sept. 4, 1996.)

The Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research Inc., will conduct most of the research. It plans to test annually the students who receive scholarships and those who don't for at least three years.

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