Huge Demand for Private Vouchers Raises Questions

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The Children's Scholarship Fund may have pledged to stay out of politics, but it's dropped a compelling new question into the school choice debate: What does it mean when the low-income parents of 1.25 million children seek the chance to win one of 40,000 private school scholarships?

Does it mean that "the families who applied are profoundly dissatisfied with their current--and only--option in education," as the program's co-founder, Theodore J. Forstmann, said last week in announcing the privately financed awards? Or does it merely suggest that large numbers of urban families believe a private education is the better alternative for their children?

"I don't think you want to infer from this that most parents are dissatisfied, or even that most poor parents are dissatisfied," said Terry M. Moe, a Stanford University professor and voucher supporter who has written a book about such scholarship programs. "It's just that there is a large, pent-up demand among some parts of the population."

Regardless, the figures released last week showing the volume of applications to the Children's Scholarship Fund astounded both supporters and opponents of vouchers. On both sides, it left few doubting that the numbers will play a prominent role in the coming months as policymakers weigh the merits of giving public support to parents wanting to send their children to private school.

A Big Boost

Dozens of privately financed voucher-style programs have been founded at the local level since 1991. The movement got a significant boost last June when Mr. Forstmann, a Wall Street financier, and Wal-Mart heir John Walton announced they were putting $100 million into a new nationwide initiative.

By challenging local donors around the country to match their donations, the fund spurred the creation of new programs--and the growth of existing ones--in 40 cities. The organization also is backing statewide programs in Arkansas, Michigan, and New Hampshire. Moreover, it announced in February that 5,000 scholarships would be reserved for applicants in an at-large pool.

The students selected in the lotteries earlier this month will receive scholarships worth up to $1,700 annually, which are guaranteed for four years. They will be entering grades K-8 in the fall.

The initial donations ultimately drew $70 million in matching funds. The resulting 40,000 scholarships represent more than twice the number of privately underwritten vouchers awarded in any previous year by local programs, according to the Bentonville, Ark.-based CEO America, which has provided such programs with seed money and technical support.

The program's rapid growth has been paired with an aggressive and multifaceted outreach campaign--from public service announcements by such celebrities as Major League Baseball slugger Sammy Sosa to Roman Catholic school principals who have combed their neighborhoods for potential applicants. Fund officials say their office was jammed with calls after Mr. Forstmann appeared on the television talk show ''Oprah.''

"Our goal was to make sure that as many people as we could reach would be made aware of the program," said James Courtovich, the former marketing executive who is the president of the Children's Scholarship Fund. "We didn't want this to be a thing where you'd only hear about it from a friend of a friend."

Catholic Boon

Despite the large number of families who sought the assistance, the applications represent only about one out of every 16 eligible children nationwide, according to the program's estimates. But in such cities as Philadelphia and Washington, the parents of as many as one-third of eligible children applied, as did 44 percent of those in Baltimore.

Fund officials used a sliding scale based on federal poverty guidelines to determine eligibility. A single parent with one child would qualify, for example, if she earned $29,295 a year or less. A sliding scale also will determine parents' own, required contribution to the tuition costs; program officials estimate the average family will pay $1,000.

Children already in private schools also were eligible. Program officials were unable last week to provide the exact number of students likely to switch from public to private schools, but they estimated that the percentage of scholarship recipients already attending private schools ranged from 10 percent to 20 percent.

Observers expect most of the lottery winners to attend Roman Catholic elementary schools, where the average annual tuition runs about $1,500.

For some dioceses, the program will mean an infusion of both students and dollars. In Los Angeles, where the fund awarded some 3,750 scholarships, the Catholic schools in the city's poorest neighborhoods have about 3,500 open spaces, according to Jerome R. Porath, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

"The advantage of the Children's Scholarship Fund is that it provides an education that people otherwise can't afford," he said. "And it also puts money into the schools, so that other students can benefit. So this kind of program has a terrific multiplying effect."

Political Fallout

Organizers have said the fund's purpose is not to push for tax-supported aid for private education, but many voucher supporters argue that the overwhelming demand for the program boldly underscores the need for publicly funded school choice.

"If there are a million kids who would like to change schools and only 40,000 of them can afford to do so, it may occur to somebody that maybe the rest should be given the chance," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative research organization that supports a scholarship program in Dayton, Ohio.

Indeed, some longtime voucher foes last week accused the scholarship fund of seeking to pave the way for voucher legislation.

"Initially, I had no argument with this because I know there is a long tradition of private dollars being raised for private and parochial schools," Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said last week, "but there appears to be a clear public-policy motive here, and it's taking an anti-public-school slant."

A day before the scholarship winners were announced, People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington, released a report linking the program's founders to campaigns for publicly subsidized vouchers and other conservative causes.

Officials at the fund's New York City headquarters deny that they harbor ulterior motives. "There is no angle," Mr. Courtovich said. He pointed to the fund's advisory board, which now includes people of varying political stripes, including U.S. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

"He's not a supporter of vouchers," said Marc Kimball, the Democrat's press secretary. "And they have said they won't advocate that public money be going to private schools, but the senator thinks this is a significant private effort to help kids--many of them who are not well-off financially--to get a good education."

Which is exactly why Quantina Samuels is so excited that she won scholarships for her two children last week.

A medical secretary for a Washington hospital, she said she's always been impressed with the education that a cousin's son has been getting at a local Catholic school. But Ms. Samuels, a single mother earning about $18,000 a year, figured she could never afford to send her children to a private school--until she heard about the Children's Scholarship Fund.

"I'm not trying to be prejudiced against the public schools," she said. "But the surroundings are completely different. The kids just seem to be paying more attention and are really into their work, and it seems that they have more concern about the kids in private school."

Vol. 18, Issue 33, Pages 1, 12-13

Published in Print: April 28, 1999, as Huge Demand for Private Vouchers Raises Questions
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