A Growing Voice for School Choice

Several cities now have a program that provides funds to send poor kids to better schools, and others could follow suit. What is it and how does it work?

Zakiya Courtney and Theodore J. Forstmann are worlds apart. She is a middle-age, middle-income African American woman from Middle America. He is a white, jet-setting corporate chieftain, who ranks among America's wealthiest businessmen. But on at least one issue, they both vehemently agree: Parents, regardless of their income, should be able to send their kids to the school of their choice.

In their own ways, both have put themselves center stage in a battle that is gaining increasing national attention--the fight to provide poor kids the financial wherewithal to abandon bad schools.

Courtney is the director of Parents for School Choice in Milwaukee, which assists parents in applying for government-sponsored scholarships to help pay private-school tuition for children. Forstmann is a private philanthropist who announced last week that he plans to form a group that will provide as many as 5,000 low-income children in Los Angeles with vouchers that will help pay the cost of private-school tuition.

"The whole issue is the parents' right to choose the best education environment for their kids," says Courtney, the mother of six whose grandson is in Milwaukee's school-choice program.

That sentiment is gaining support from an increasing number of parents, politicians and philanthropists. Today, test scores coming out of the nation's public schools are looking increasingly dismal: A comparison of international test scores found U.S. scores below nearly every other industrialized country and lower than many Third World nations.

"School choice is the civil rights movement of the '90s," says House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who is sponsoring a bill that would launch a publicly funded school-choice program in Washington, D.C.

Although school choice appears to be making significant headway, many parents don't know much about it, and there is plenty of opposition to it. What is it? How does it work? Where is it functioning now, and is it likely to come to your neighborhood? Here are some answers:

Q: What is school choice?

A: In a nutshell, it refers to the ability to send your child to the school of your choice--public or private. Wealthy and middle-income Americans largely have that ability now. But lower-income families might not have a choice because they cannot afford private-school tuition. As a result, low-income children are often stuck in some of the worst-performing schools in the country.

The focus of school-choice programs is to give these children money in the form of vouchers or scholarships that would allow them, if they wish, to abandon their public campuses to attend private schools.

Q: Do these kids get the full cost of their education paid for, no matter what private school they choose?

A: That depends on the program. There are publicly funded programs operating in the cities of Milwaukee and Cleveland, and the states of Vermont and Maine. The programs in Vermont and Maine are unusual in that they are for all children--regardless of income--who live in communities without a public high school. These kids can choose an out-of-town or out-of-state school--public or private--and their town will pay the cost. However, there are limits on how much the town must pay to finance private-school education, and the programs will not pay for parochial schools.

In Milwaukee, although the school-choice program has limits on how much it will pay, participating schools must accept the Milwaukee Parental Choice voucher as payment in full.

Legislation that is on the verge of passing both houses of Congress would also create a publicly sponsored school-choice program in Washington, D.C., that would function much like the Milwaukee program.

Meanwhile, there are several privately funded school-choice programs operating in New York, Washington, D.C., and the one launched in Los Angeles. With the privately funded programs, parents generally pay the difference if they choose schools that charge more than the maximum amount of the voucher. However, some schools waive the remaining tuition. In addition, the privately funded programs usually allow parents to choose parochial schools, which are often less expensive than private schools that are not affiliated with a specific religion.

Q: Why do the publicly funded programs not allow payment for religious schools?

A: Some argue that using public dollars to finance parochial education violates constitutional precepts of keeping government and religion separate. However, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, challenges that view and is in the process of arguing its case in state Supreme Courts in the states that support school choice. Institute spokesman John Kramer predicts that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the question within the year and "finally remove the constitutional cloud over this issue."

The crux of their argument: The government cannot cram religion down citizens' throats, but it also cannot prohibit them from being religious. There is no constitutional violation as long as the program doesn't favor parochial schools over nonreligious ones, they said. (There is precedent for this argument in how the government pays college expenses. Pell Grants, which are federally sponsored scholarships for low-income students, can be used at any accredited college, regardless of its religious affiliation.)

Q: How do parents apply for the vouchers?

A: It depends on the program. Usually, parents must establish that they meet the income restrictions of the program, which generally relate to the family's income versus the poverty line for families of similar size living in the same city. (The "poverty line" actually varies by thousands of dollars from one city to the next because the cost of living, including housing and food prices, is greater in some urban areas.)

If there are more applications than available vouchers, the programs either grant them on a first-come first-served basis or through a lottery.

Q: Who opposes school choice and why?

A: There is a long list of opponents, ranging from President Clinton to the National Education Assn. Generally, opponents argue that school choice represents an abandonment of the federal mandate to provide good public schools for all children. Moreover, they charge that it's impossible to keep tabs on the quality of education at the numerous and varied private schools.

Advocates, however, say competition often serves as a catalyst for change at poorly performing public schools.

In Albany, N.Y., for example, philanthropist Virginia Gilder offered $2,000 scholarships to every child in the city's worst-performing school. One in six students took her up on it, abandoning their public campus. This led the public school to launch a series of improvements, including bringing in a new principal and several new teachers.

Kathy M. Kristof is a syndicated financial columnist and author of "Kathy Kristof's Complete Book of Dollars and Sense." She will discuss the five steps to financial fitness at a Barnes & Noble book-signing, April 9, 7:30 p.m., 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles. Write to her in care of Personal Finance, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or e-mail kathy.kristof@latimes.com

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