School Choice & Charters

Ground Zero for Vouchers

By Mark Walsh — March 17, 1999 17 min read
The philanthropists had chosen the Edgewood Independent School District for a nationally watched experiment in privately financed vouchers.

San Antonio

The news last spring hit the Edgewood Independent School District like a ton of bricks. A group of business executives was putting up $50 million over 10 years to allow any child from a low-income family--which meant virtually all the families in the Edgewood public schools--to attend any private school or even public schools in other districts.

The district, which covers a poor section of the city of San Antonio, has a history of low state test scores and other problems, and the philanthropists had chosen it for a nationally watched experiment in privately financed vouchers.

Or, as the school board president put it, Edgewood was being dumped on and its children were being used as guinea pigs.

It didn’t help matters that the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation waited until the day of the announcement to inform district officials of the new “Horizon Scholarship” program.

“What CEO did without consulting the community was an insult,” says Superintendent Dolores Muñoz. “They have imposed this experiment on us, and we are very much opposed to being in an experiment.”

To the sponsors of the Horizon Scholarships, whose goal was helping poor children move to better schools and perhaps a better future, offending public school bureaucrats was hardly a concern. “I don’t let that bother me,” says Robert Aguirre, the managing director of the CEO Foundation of San Antonio. “I would say the program is working the way we hoped.”

“You now have a whole group of parents who say, ‘I take responsibility for my child,’ ” Aguirre adds. “If they discover private school is not a better place for their children, they are free to go back to the Edgewood schools.”

Privately supported voucher programs have been around since the early 1990s. J. Patrick Rooney, a wealthy insurance-company executive, started the first in Indianapolis. Several cities, from Birmingham, Ala., to San Francisco, now have them. But the Horizon program is the first to provide the opportunity of private school choice for virtually every student in an entire district.

The program’s backers said they wanted a test tube where the impact of vouchers could be evaluated on a manageable scale. And that is what they have gotten with their $50 million pledge, some $2.8 million of which is being spent in the first year.

Though district officials in Edgewood are loath to admit it, the voucher program appears to have shaken them out of complacency and motivated them to respond in concrete ways.

The district serves 14 square miles of San Antonio that are filled with ramshackle bungalows and hardscrabble businesses. Many residents are first- or second-generation Mexican immigrants, though most of the district’s 13,000 students were born here. Edgewood has about one-fifth the enrollment of the San Antonio Independent School District, which serves most of the city’s students.

Nearly 97 percent of Edgewood’s students are Hispanic, and 96 percent are economically disadvantaged. So many qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program that the district simply finds it easier to serve breakfast and lunch free to all its students.

In some ways, the Edgewood district has a long history of involvement in the quest for equity in education. The district has been at the heart of two landmark legal cases involving school financing. In 1968, a sheet metal worker from the Edgewood community named Demetrio Rodriguez was the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that challenged Texas’ school finance system.

A special federal district court ruled in 1971 that the system was unconstitutional. But in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the U.S. Constitution provides no right to an equal education.

In the 1980s, the Edgewood district itself went to the state courts, claiming the Texas funding system was unfair, and in 1989 the Texas Supreme Court agreed. After several years of wrangling, the state legislature in 1993 adopted a “Robin Hood” finance system in which some revenue from property taxes is shifted from wealthier districts to poor ones.

The CEO Horizon program offers vouchers worth up to $4,000 to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under federal income guidelines. When the program was launched, no one was quite sure how many Edgewood students would take advantage of it, and the number of participants could have numbered in the upper thousands as long as there were enough slots for them in other schools.

As it turned out, more than 2,000 families applied for the vouchers, but many did not meet the residency requirement or the income limitations. Some 837 students ended up with vouchers last fall. Of those, 566 had been in the Edgewood public schools the previous year, or 3.7 percent of the district’s enrollment. Another 116 were starting in kindergarten, and 50 had been attending private schools. (Only a limited number of private school students were eligible for the program.)

‘If they discover private school is not a better place for their children, they are free to go back to the Edgewood schools.’

Robert Aguirre,
Managing Director,
CEO Foundation

The other 105 Horizon students had somehow been attending public schools outside the Edgewood system, even though they were legally residents of the district. “This surprised us,” Aguirre says. “These are examples of what I would term ‘black market choice.’ ”

In other words, those students were either lying about their residency or legally living with a relative in another district to attend public schools other than Edgewood’s. But when the voucher program came along, they reclaimed their residency to take advantage of it.

Estella Lopez, a stay-at-home mother whose daughter, Priscilla, attended kindergarten in the Edgewood public schools last year, jumped at the chance to use a voucher.

“They were telling me a lot of negative things and she wasn’t progressing” at her public school, says Lopez. “I didn’t accept that.”

She was driving past the International Christian School one day last summer and stopped in to inquire about whether she could use the voucher there. The school accepted Priscilla, but placed her in kindergarten again, Lopez says.

“She is very active in her school work this year,” the mother says. “For me, it is a joy to see her like this.”

Some of the mothers from Lyndon B. Johnson Elementary School in Edgewood, where Priscilla attended last year, have turned a cold shoulder to Lopez when they cross paths in the community.

“They tell me, ‘You’re a traitor,’ ” she says. “But I tell them I need to do this for my daughter. I was searching for answers for my daughter and I found them with the voucher.”

For the district, losing more than 500 students directly to the voucher program was bad enough. But it has also lost another 300 to the closing of a housing project. And Kelly Air Force Base, one of the district’s economic generators, is being closed, which means that more families are moving out.

Those developments have shrunk the district rolls by more than 1,000 students since last school year. The district has not taken a financial hit yet, since school funding in Texas is based on the previous year’s enrollment. But next year, the district faces a cut of some $4 million in a general-fund budget of $93 million this year.

“I’ve got $4 million I’m not spending because I have to return it next year,” Superintendent Muñoz says. “The minute we found out the enrollment was low, we started attritioning [personnel] left and right.”

District leaders resent being targeted by the CEO Foundation in part because they believe Edgewood is on the rebound.

As measured by scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the state’s accountability program, Edgewood has improved in recent years. The district had nine “low performing” schools in 1993--schools where fewer than 40 percent of students received passing scores in reading, writing, or mathematics. Last year, there were no low-performing schools, and three of the district’s 16 elementary schools were “recognized,” meaning they had at least 80 percent of their pupils passing in each area.

But none of the district’s schools reached the top or “exemplary” category, meaning at least 90 percent of students passed in each area.

District officials also note that Edgewood’s dropout rate has decreased from 12 percent to 4.8 percent in recent years. And the proportion of its seniors who go on to college has increased, while the value of college scholarships they have received has tripled.

Still, the image of a district beset by low expectations persists.

In a highly critical, three-part series on the Edgewood district published in November, the Houston Chronicle reported that fewer than half its high school students take one of the two major college-entrance exams. That statistic is confirmed by the Texas Education Agency. The newspaper’s report also suggested that the district had poorly managed a $27 million bond package approved by Edgewood voters in 1992. Eight of 21 schools in line for improvements from the bond issue have not seen work, more than six years later, the paper said.

Like other urban districts, Edgewood is also buffeted by squabbles between the school board and the superintendent. According to local reports, some school board members appear to be souring on Muñoz, who has been at the helm of the district since 1991.

At Coronado-Escobar Elementary School, which is neither one of the district’s worse schools nor one of its best, teachers and parents express anguish over being thrust into the voucher debate.

“I was a little surprised when I heard about it,” Principal Rosa Zapata says of the foundation’s initiative. “I thought, ‘Who are these people, and why are they picking on Edgewood?’ ”

The school has 630 pupils this year in prekindergarten through 6th grade. Thirteen children from the school took advantage of the voucher program, Zapata says. She believes the school’s strong parental-involvement program helped keep the number down.

“As soon as we see a parent is having a problem, we get on the phone,” the principal says. The school also adopted a voluntary uniform program this year. “That has given parents a better sense of security,” Zapata says.

In a room set aside for parent volunteers, several mothers were working on banners for the school one day last month.

Maria Gaona, who has a 6th grade son and a 1st grade daughter, eagerly spoke up for the other mothers. “Most of us are very angry,” she says. “It’s another way of getting back at us for what happened in the ‘60s,” referring to the school finance case.

“It’s all for political reasons,” adds Gaona, who traveled to Austin in January with other parents from Edgewood to testify against school vouchers before a state legislative committee considering a publicly funded voucher program.

The mothers then discuss what they see as the flaws of the voucher program. “They say parents have a choice, but they really don’t,” Gaona contends. “The [private] schools pick and choose which students they want.”

These parents, many of whom are first- or second-generation immigrants from Mexico, believe that the private schools participating in the program are less inclined to accept students who need special education or who have been in bilingual education programs.

Jesus Garcia, a 3rd and 4th grade teacher at the school, says he also must reassure his friends that the district is not on the verge of shutting down. “I think we’re taking a pounding in the media,” says Garcia, a former paramedic who became a teacher three years ago. “We’re doing a good job. You can go to any other district and see they are having the same types of problems.”

The CEO Foundation maintains that it did not set out to destroy a public school system to prove a point about vouchers. To the contrary, its leaders say, it wants to show how free-market forces in education will improve a monopolistic public system. But that means, for the time being, providing students with the means to escape Edgewood’s public schools.

Where the 837 students participating this year choose to go is up to parents. Aguirre and the other proponents of the vouchers expect that some new private schools will be created to serve the students leaving the district. So far, however, most parents have chosen existing private schools. Only a handful of new schools opened in San Antonio this year, and they were not necessarily tied to the creation of the Horizon vouchers.

The Family Faith Academy opened last fall in a former bar known as Chino’s Ice House. John Rhodes, the school’s director, says that just two of the Christian school’s 18 students are Horizon-voucher recipients.

‘What CEO did without consulting the community was an insult. They have imposed this experiment on us, and we are very much opposed to being in an experiment.’

Dolores Muñoz,
Edgewood Independent School District

“The Lord said to us over a year ago that we’d be opening an inner-city school,” Rhodes says. Inside, students study at individual carrels as staff members move around to help them with their work.

Most voucher recipients attend established Roman Catholic, Baptist, or nondenominational private schools.

According to the CEO Foundation, 53 percent of the 837 Horizon-voucher students are in Catholic schools. The second-largest proportion, 38 percent, attend nondenominational Christian schools. Eight percent are in Baptist schools, and the few others are in other private schools or in public schools outside the district.

Families have a financial incentive to choose private schools within the Edgewood district. The vouchers are worth $3,600 a year for grades K-8 and $4,000 a year for grades 9-12 within the district’s boundaries. Outside the boundaries, the vouchers pay for 100 percent of tuition up to $2,000 for K-8 pupils and $3,500 for 9th to 12th graders.

That policy has been a boon for Edgewood private schools such as St. John Berchmans School, a Catholic school in the heart of the neighborhood. The pre-K-8 school was facing declining enrollment because of the closing of Kelly Air Force Base. This year, 120 of its 430 students are recipients of Horizon vouchers.

“When kids started coming and applying, it made my life a whole lot easier,” says Deborah J. Goering, St. John Berchmans’ principal.

The program has also meant something of a financial windfall for the school, where basic tuition is $1,500 a year for the first child in a family. Like most Catholic schools, tuition seldom covers all the costs, which are made up with donations and fund-raisers. But the $3,600 the school is getting for each voucher recipient has meant the school could upgrade many of its classrooms and supplies.

So Goering proudly shows off the library, which has new chairs and 1,500 new books. Classrooms have new desks and chairs, and many have new Apple iMac computers up and running.

Goering says she personally tested every student who applied for the school under the voucher program.

“It was just so I would have a good feel for where they were at,” she says. “The kids who came in are A, B, C, and D students. It’s a cross-section, just like I already have here.”

Some of the students from the Edgewood public schools must adjust to a more rigorous load of homework at the Catholic school, the principal says. And one young man, she says, came in to apply with multicolored hair and an earring.

“He was told that that is not acceptable hair for Catholic school,” Goering recalls. The boy ended up back in public school.

In the glass-enclosed bulletin board in St. John Berchmans’ main hallway are pictures from December, when Gov. George W. Bush of Texas visited the school to learn about the voucher program. The event was an indication that the Horizon program is being watched closely by politicians in the state capital and elsewhere.

It’s no secret that the backers of the privately backed program hope to inspire a government-run voucher program. The $50 million pledged for the 10-year program comes from the CEO America Foundation, a Bentonville, Ark.-based organization that promotes vouchers nationwide, and from Dr. James Leininger, a San Antonio physician who founded a successful company, Kinetic Concepts Inc., that makes hospital beds.

Leininger was not available for interviews, but last fall, he told “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on public television that he would like every child in the country to have the same opportunity as his own children: to attend a private school or other school not mandated by the local public system.

“The private sector couldn’t possibly finance a scholarship for every low-income child in America,” Leininger said in the TV interview. “So it only makes sense that at some point the government has got to do the right thing for those poor children and allow them to go to any school they want to go to.”

The Texas legislature has debated school vouchers in the past without approving any program. Bush is an advocate of trying publicly financed vouchers on a pilot basis, and there are bills before the legislature that would set up such a program. One particularly ambitious bill, introduced this month, would target low-income students in six counties who have performed poorly on state tests.

Parents and advocates on bothsides of the voucher debate in Edgewood have traveled to Austin to make their case. Aguirre, for example, has been emphasizing his recent midterm report on the program, which argues that the Horizon vouchers have not taken the cream of the crop from the Edgewood public schools, as district officials predicted they would.

The first batch of voucher participants earned decent grades in Edgewood public schools last year, averaging in the 80s in all subjects. But many of the students had not passed the TAAS tests in those very subjects.

The CEO Foundation has arranged for an evaluation of the voucher program by Mathematica Policy Research of Princeton, N.J. The research team will include Paul Peterson of Harvard University and Jay Greene of the University of Texas at Austin. The two researchers have previously been lightning rods for criticism in the education research community for their analyses suggesting positive results for voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and elsewhere.

The Edgewood district is not eager to cooperate with such an evaluation. “They can evaluate us, but we’re not going to support it,” Superintendent Muñoz says. “How can you have an unbiased evaluation when you have a pro-voucher advocate conducting it?” (Peterson and Greene have defended their research as being free of bias.)

Meanwhile, the district has taken a number of steps since the start of the voucher program. It has held community rallies and parent workshops, partly to stoke pride and support for the public schools, and partly to fuel opposition to the vouchers.

Meanwhile, the district has budgeted $120,000 for an independent management study to help set the district on the right track.

The National Education Association, which vigorously opposes voucher programs, has dispatched an organizer to the community to help. The union, through its state and local affiliates, organized the lobbying trip to Austin.

The district also plans a marketing campaign to touch up its image.

“One of the things we are going to have to do is put more dollars into marketing ourselves,” Muñoz says. “Frankly, our principals are calling [voucher] parents and saying, ‘We want to be of service to you. If you feel you want to come back, our doors are open,’ they say.”

Most significantly, in an effort to stem the loss of students, the district has opened its enrollment to anyone who wants to attend. Some 200 students from other districts have switched to Edgewood public schools.

“We actually already had some open enrollment, but we just announced it” with more fanfare, Muñoz says. “I will say the voucher issue did help us market it more. We have some good special-needs programs, and we do not turn down special-needs requests from other districts.”

Aguirre of the CEO Foundation says several of the district’s moves have been little more than public relations. But he views the open-enrollment policy as significant. “The district is beginning to respond in a thoughtful way,” he says.

But Muñoz rejects the argument that the voucher program is forcing positive change on the school district. “To me, they are taking too much credit for what they have not done,” she says of the voucher organizers. “CEO should not be taking any credit for our improvement efforts. It is properly placed in our parents and our educators.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as Ground Zero for Vouchers


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