School-Choice Initiatives Find Isolated Successes

Popular federal ‘savings account’ legislation faces presidential veto

WASHINGTON — School choice proponents, including many Catholic groups, have been trying for years to pass legislation at state and federal levels that would allow parents to choose the schools their children attend. Throughout the 1990s they have seen school-choice proposals brought up in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill, only to be defeated time and again by the movement's implacable foes — the well-funded and highly organized teachers’ unions, and the legislators who do their bidding in the corridors of power.

The primary controversy in the school-choice debate is the use of government-funded vouchers for private and parochial school tuitions. Proponents say that government funds are necessary in order that parents of all income brackets can have true educational choice for their children — since wealthy parents already have the option of choosing (and paying for) private schools. Teachers'unions and other opponents claim that vouchers will sap necessary funds from public schools.

The school-choice movement, however, seems to have learned from their mostly grim legislative initiatives. Instead of another Pickett-like charge into the teeth of the enemy's strongest guns, school-choice supporters are trying other avenues to give low-income parents more educational options.

In Washington, school-choice supporters are pushing legislation that would allow parents to save for tuitions, thus sidestepping for a time the nettlesome vouchers debate. At the grass roots, school choice has seen a breakthrough at the local level, as a suburban Philadelphia school district enacted a genuine choice bill for its local students.

What's more, as government-funded vouchers have been a lightning rod, privately funded school-choice scholarships are becoming even more popular around the country. On Capitol Hill, legislation creating so-called “education savings accounts” is moving slowly but surely through the legislative meat grinder. The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) and Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), would give parents, relatives, or other scholarship donors the option to save up to $2,000 annually in the tax-free accounts. These funds could be used to pay for kindergarten through 12th-grade educational expenses, including books, transportation, or tuition. Similar accounts for college expenses have already been established.

The Senate passed the bill 53-46 in April, and it had previously been approved in the House by a comfortable margin. President Bill Clinton has threatened to veto the bill, although his criticism has been muted in recent months as the popularity of education savings accounts has steadily increased and centrist Democrats have signed onto the initiative. Clinton did veto a District of Columbia voucher plan May 20 (see story, page 2).

The measure is part of a larger federal education tug of war, however, as the GOP Congress and the Clinton Administration wrestle over national testing, block grants, and legislation that involves the financing of public school construction and repair.

Republicans and a handful of Democrats are strongly supporting the measure and pressing for action.

“Federal policy has to become a friend of change and reform, not a defender of the status quo,” said Coverdell.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, where school-choice stalwarts have come so tantalizingly close to enacting a statewide school-choice plan only to fall a handful of votes short on three different occasions, one public school district has turned to school choice for what it considers its own financial well-being.

Because of increasing private school tuitions, many families in the Southeast Delaware County School District (which runs along the Interstate 95 corridor up to the Philadelphia city line) have had to remove their children from private schools and place them in the crowded public school system. With classroom size in the district already a major concern, building a new school would be necessary, unless the trend was arrested. With these concerns in mind, the local school board in March passed an ordinance to allow students residing in the district the use of public funds for private and parochial school tuition.

The plan allows parents of district students to be reimbursed with public dollars for fees at private and parochial schools for the 1998-99 school year. Reimbursements will total $500 for kindergarten, $750 for grade school, and $1,000 for high school.

Since it costs an average of $6,900 annually to educate a high school student in the district, school officials figure to save close to $6000 for each student who attends private or parochial school and avert the need for a costly new construction project that could result in a property tax hike.

“This is a win for parents, for students, for taxpayers, and for the school district,” said John Shivinsky, executive director of the REACH (Road to Educational Achievement through Choice) Alliance, a school-choice group headquartered in Harrisburg, Pa. He noted that because of tuition reimbursement, a Catholic school education is within reach for many families. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia runs several parochial schools in the area.

The tuition reimbursement program has been challenged in state court, however, by, among others, the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the People for the American Way.

“I think a lot of school districts will be looking closely at that court case, because there are probably a great many districts that are in a similar situation,” said Shivinsky. “It is no surprise that the status quo education establishment wants to stop this effort. When other school districts see what a common-sense solution this is, a lot of other places are going to have interest.”

Although the REACH Alliance has been strongly supportive of this effort, the group remains committed to a statewide school choice initiative.

The school-choice movement also has gained ground in Texas, as a private foundation has set up a $50 million scholarship program for low-income families in the San Antonio area. The Children's Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation will be distributing $5 million a year for 10 years to poor families in the Edgewood district in the city. Families that qualify for the free or reduced lunch program will be eligible to apply for the scholarships. Since more than half the 14,000 students in the district come from families below the poverty level, a majority of the students will be eligible for a full tuition scholarship that may be used at any private or parochial school.

According to CEO's San Antonio chapter, the initiative will be a test of the academic effects of school choice, citing that in each of the last three years, half the students at Edgewood's Kennedy High School failed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS).

The National Education Association opposes the program, calling vouchers “a road to nowhere.”

“These school choice initiatives are beginning to come together in a huge flood all across the country,” said Deacon Keith Fournier, president of the Washington-based Catholic Alliance, which has started the First Teachers Coalition to push for an expanded parental role in education.

“We are witnessing the beginning of an education revolution in America.... Parental choice in education is a cutting edge issue in America today,” he said. “These different initiatives are coming about because parents have a genuine hunger for more educational options. I predict that within five years school choice will be the norm across the country.”

Deacon Fournier noted that Catholic teaching and the words of the Holy Father are clear on this point: parents are the primary teachers of their children.

“Parental choice is a natural outgrowth of that,” he said.

Michael Barbera writes from Washington.