Albany Program Puts New Spin on Private Vouchers

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The halls of Giffen Memorial Elementary School could be decidedly quieter next fall.

According to a local group that has offered a scholarship to each of the 458 students now attending the Albany, N.Y., public school, 153 have accepted and plan to switch to one of 30 area private schools.

While local public school officials dispute the figure, few deny that the new privately financed program has caught the attention of the Albany district, its parents, and the state legislature, which meets a stone's throw from Giffen.

"When you have one-third of the student body taking a walk, I think it sends a pretty strong message," said Tom Carroll, the president of the Empire Foundation for Policy Research, the conservative think tank that runs Albany's new voucher program, A Better Choice.

The Albany effort's focus on an individual school, rather than an entire district, makes it unusual among the type of privately supported programs generally known as private vouchers. But the limited scope of the program offers an important sign about where the movement is headed.

The earliest privately funded voucher programs, in Indianapolis, San Antonio, and Milwaukee, sought to offer as many as a thousand scholarships or more a year.

A similar large-scale initiative is now under way in New York City, where the new School Choice Scholarships Foundation this month announced the names of 1,300 students in the city's public schools who won scholarships to help them pay for a private education. ("16,000 N.Y.C. Parents Apply For 1,300 Vouchers to Private Schools," April 30, 1997.)

But many observers say a more important trend is evidenced in the dozens of other cities where groups have recently formed privately funded programs serving many fewer students.

"The largest growth has been in the programs for between 100 and 200 kids," said Fritz Steiger, the president of the Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation of America. Also known as CEO America, the Bentonville, Ark.-based group gives technical assistance and has channeled some financial support to new private voucher programs.

The group now tracks such programs in some 30 cities from Bridgeport, Conn., to Oakland, Calif. It says the total number of students served has grown from 746 in the 1991-92 school year to more than 10,000 today. By comparison, the publicly funded voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee together serve about 3,500 students.

Multiple Motives

The spread of the private efforts coincides with a rising impatience among those who support publicly funded vouchers but have generally been unable to persuade legislatures or voters to approve them.

The Cleveland and Milwaukee voucher experiments, which allow low-income children to attend private schools at state expense, are the only programs of their kind.

Only the Cleveland program currently includes religious as well as secular private schools--and that practice was struck down earlier this month by an Ohio appeals court. ("Voucher Plan in Cleveland Is Overturned," May 7, 1997.)

Supporters and opponents of publicly financed vouchers agree it will take a U.S. Supreme Court decision to settle the constitutional issue raised by public voucher programs that include religious schools.

In the meantime, many founders of private voucher programs now see their mission as two-fold: giving parents assistance to choose private education, including religious schools, while also paving the way toward policies allowing government support.

The advent of more privately backed programs, Mr. Steiger said, "models to the public--and that includes the media and the legislature--as to how voucher programs can operate, and it demonstrates there is a need and what the demands are."

With the help of a $2 million gift from the Walton Family Foundation in 1994, CEO America has given $50,000 grants to help local groups in a half dozen cities launch new private voucher programs. The organization also is putting greater emphasis on advocating public voucher programs.

"This isn't just about providing scholarships," Mr. Steiger said.

Limitations Seen

Even as the movement for privately financed vouchers grows, its supporters say their efforts cannot match the demand of all the parents who would like to take advantage of such programs.

Most of the first programs offered scholarships that paid for up to 50 percent of private school tuition. But as more parents with lower incomes applied, some have been unable to raise the matching funds.

"The demand is out there, but a lot them are more poor," said Daniel McKinley, the executive director of Partners Advancing Values in Education, or PAVE, a private voucher program in Milwaukee that is separate from the city's publicly funded effort.

A recent study showed that the number of students who received PAVE scholarships but did not use them rose from about 50 in the 1994-95 school year to more than 200 in the 1995-96 school year. The increase coincides with a 63 percent rise in the number of PAVE scholarships awarded. But Mr. McKinley also suspects that the higher nonattendance rate reflects the more dire financial straits of the parents seeking the aid.

"We cannot help those most in need on the lower end of the economic spectrum," he said. "They need some public assistance to do it."

Some of the newer privately funded vouchers are now paying a greater portion of each student's tuition. Albany's A Better Choice will pay 90 percent of tuition up to $2,000. New York City's School Choice Scholarships Foundation offers $1,400 vouchers, enough to cover most of the $1,700 to $1,800 tuition bill typical at the city's Roman Catholic elementary schools.

Who's Left Behind?

In Albany, the founders of A Better Choice say that one of their goals is to shine a spotlight on what they say are the public school system's failures.

With the help of a $50,000 CEO America grant, the Albany group began last year by offering 50 scholarships of up to $1,000 each to students in Albany, Schenectady, and Troy.

A $1 million gift from New York City investor Virginia Gilder allowed the group to offer scholarships to every student at Giffen Memorial Elementary School. The program has made at least a three-year commitment to each student to pay up to $2,000 of their annual tuition bill.

Organizers say private and parochial schools in the Albany area typically charge between $1,000 and $2,000 a year.

A Better Choice officials say they picked the school because it had some of the lowest 3rd grade reading scores of all the city's public elementary schools.

"The publicity on this has embarrassed the public schools," said ABC's Mr. Carroll. "A lot more people are paying attention to Giffen than ever before."

But some critics argue that ABC's effort does little to help the students who stay at Giffen.

"We've got no problem with private companies or private individuals providing money for private schools," said Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association. "I'd be curious to know what efforts they've made to improve [Giffen]."

Although officials in the 9,800-student Albany district acknowledge that Giffen Elementary needs to improve, they note that it serves one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, with 96 percent of its students eligible for free lunches based on federal guidelines.

"The children are being used in a game of political manipulation," said district spokesman David Albert, who added that he knows of only 22 students who have actually told Giffen's principal they plan to attend a private school next fall.

Even if a third of the students do leave the school, Mr. Albert speculates that many will eventually return to Giffen because their parents can't afford to raise their share of the private school costs or because the private schools won't accept their children.

He also said he worries about the demoralizing effect on the students who remain at a school labeled the city's worst.

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