05/2003 The Friedman Report: A Bostonian Takes on the Blaine Amendment

Published May 1, 2003

When asked how he became interested in the school choice movement, Cornelius “Con” Chapman talks about the Fall of 1957, when federal troops could be seen on TV each night, forcibly integrating public schools in Arkansas.

At the time, Chapman had just entered first grade in a Catholic school. One of his classmates was African-American, and there were several others in the first eight grades, all attending a voluntarily integrated school with no force or federal troops required.

“So, from my first year of formal schooling,” explained Chapman, “I’ve been aware that public institutions can have mistaken policies–in this case, the vestiges of ‘separate but equal’–and that a system with different principles can offer a counter-example and competition when public schools go astray.”

Chapman is a corporate lawyer in Boston, whose own two sons attended public schools: “Like many Americans, my family ‘bought’ its public schools when we bought our house,” he said.

The vast inequality between low- and higher-income Americans was brought home to him when his son came home from third grade and asked him if he was going to be sent to private school the next year. “I said ‘no’ and asked him why he wanted to know,” said Chapman. He said his teacher had asked his class the question that day in school.

Chapman discovered it would be highly unlikely for a third-grade teacher to ask that same question of students in a low-income-area school in Boston, which means (a) those students don’t have choices and (b) their school systems know it. Those school systems have no incentive to poll students as to their plans, “since they don’t have to improve to keep them and their tax dollars captive,” he explained.

Chapman is a co-founder of the Coalition for Parental Choice in Massachusetts, an umbrella group that unites a number of organizations with different approaches to the issue of public education. They are united by the principle that the most effective way to transform K-12 education in America is to put purchasing power in the hands of consumers–namely, parents and guardians of school-age children.

The group has done its share of “good cop and bad cop work,” explained Chapman–for example, administering a Children’s Scholarship Fund for six low-income cities in eastern Massachusetts, administering its own scholarship program called “Give a Child a Chance,” and orchestrating the Blaine amendment lawsuit now making its way through the state court system. The Massachusetts amendment is particularly restrictive and precludes any funding flowing from the government to religious institutions like parochial schools.

Chapman would like to see a “G.I. Bill for K-12 education.” He has drafted legislation for educational IRAs that would include a refundable tax credit for families that don’t have taxable income, so even the lowest-income parents could save for their children’s future educations.

He advocates vouchers over all other types of school choice, though, because he sees them as putting “immediate purchasing power to buy educational reform in the hands of those people with the greatest incentive to find the best producer of education for their children: parents.” For example, he knows one Mattapan mother who sends her two daughters to Catholic school in alternating years because she could afford to pay only one private school tuition a year.

In a Boston Globe profile of Chapman in February, he was described as “one of those suburban parents who has kept the issue rooted around poor parents. One would certainly not call him a low-income parent, so he’s standing up for people who are not like him.”