Gathering of Mayors Focuses On Vouchers, Charter Schools

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To stem further middle-class flight to the suburbs, big cities must offer parents as much choice in public schools as they have in food and entertainment, Mayor John O. Norquist of Milwaukee said at a gathering of mayors and education experts here last week.

The Rev. Floyd H. Flake addresses a meeting held by the Manhattan Insitute last week. The former U.S. representative argued that charter schools do not drain talent from their public counterparts.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

"Choice is what cities are about," said Mr. Norquist, who introduced himself as the mayor of the city of "beer, bratwurst, and school choice.'' He was one of several big-city mayors attending the Oct. 26 Manhattan Institute meeting on charter schools, vouchers, and accountability.

"Whatever you want, you're going to find more choice in cities," Mr. Norquist added, and the same should be said for urban public schools, he said.

Like many officials who attended the meeting, Mr. Norquist, a Democrat, sees dramatic changes in education--including tuition vouchers and charter schools--as crucial to Milwaukee's urban revitalization.

In addition to helping attract and retain businesses and middle-class residents, Mr. Norquist told the attendees, the Milwaukee choice program gives families of modest means a say where they once had none. "People with money and kids have left town--that's school choice for advantaged people,'' he said.

Voucher Costs Debated

The Manhattan Institute is a right-leaning think tank based in New York City, and most of the participants at the meeting spoke in favor of vouchers and choice programs, including Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, Raleigh, N.C., Mayor Tom Fetzer, and the Rev. Floyd H. Flake, a former congressman from New York.

Bret Schundler, the Republican mayor of Jersey City, N.J., argued that a voucher system not only would better serve the poor and special-needs students in the troubled district there, it also could potentially save the city millions of dollars.

"Those who oppose vouchers use the argument that they would drain money from public schools,'' said Mr. Schundler, who has been leading efforts to bring vouchers to his city's 30,000-student district.

But he noted that some of New Jersey's highest-spending districts are at the bottom in student performance. "If size of the budget were important," he said, "then Trenton and Jersey City would be the best places in the state to send kids to school.''

Mayor Schundler said he does not see charter schools--an increasingly popular form of choice within the public system--as a viable option in his district because, he said, the state teachers' unions have shackled them with regulations. Vouchers, Mr. Schundler added, "are an option that cannot be crushed by government regulation.''

Although the majority of the attendees were pro-voucher, the mayor of the host city made no bones about the fact that he is not. "Investing in children is the most important thing a city can do,'' said Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat who has led the city for the past nine months but has no special role in overseeing the school system.

He praised charter schools, however, which he said have helped the city system "ramp up competition and decrease costs.'' Of the nation's urban school districts, the 77,000-student District of Columbia system has the largest proportion of students enrolled in charters--roughly 10 percent.

"The charter school movement is not in and of itself a panacea," Mr. Williams said. But, he added, "they are good for the system.''

Capacity Questions

One panel discussion explored the question of where, if voucher programs became more widespread, all the voucher-bearing students would use them given the limited number of seats in most low-cost private and parochial schools. Darla Romfro, the president of the Children's Scholarship Fund, a privately backed, New York City-based organization that this year is providing 40,000 low-income students money to attend private and parochial schools in cities and states around the country, said she envisions "a multitude of suppliers.''

"Who knows who will come forward?'' Ms. Romfro said. "It could be [Microsoft Corp. Chairman] Bill Gates, it could be museums or universities.''

Despite such arguments, Mayor Williams remained undeterred in his opposition to vouchers, an idea that Republicans in Congress have frequently tried to insert into the school system in the nation's capital. Recognizing that he was in the minority among the participants, Mr. Williams drew a laugh when he added that, "I don't want to be a lawyer, but we have to stipulate that we've got a disagreement on vouchers.''

Dealing With Charters

A panel on charter schools was somewhat less lively but potentially more relevant, as more and more urban districts find themselves with the independent public schools in their midst.

"Charter schools are helping the nation reinvent public education," said Brunno V. Manno, a senior fellow in edu-cation at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.

Mr. Flake, an adjunct fellow of the Manhattan Institute who is the senior pastor of the 10,000-member Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City, said charter schools would be a particular asset to his congregation's neighborhood, which he said comprises predominantly black middle-class families.

Charter schools, argued Mr. Flake, a former Democratic member of the U.S. House, should be part of "rebuilding urban communities by making sure every child has an opportunity."

Vol. 19, Issue 10, Page 5

Published in Print: November 3, 1999, as Gathering of Mayors Focuses On Vouchers, Charter Schools
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