Can Vouchers Save Edgewood’s Children?

Published February 1, 1999

In a series of front-page articles just before Thanksgiving last year, Houston Chronicle reporter Thaddeus Herrick wrote about the Edgewood School District in San Antonio, Texas, where CEO America has initiated a ten-year project to determine the effect of vouchers on an entire school district.

Although the immediate effect of the voucher program was to earn the enmity of the local school superintendent and to attract 614 of the district’s 14,142 students to private schools, the Chronicle articles represent the beginnings of a longer-term effect: the focusing of state and national media attention on the devastating failure of public schools to educate America’s poor children.

Twenty years ago, low-performing Edgewood was the state’s poorest urban district. District officials argued their students could achieve . . . if only there was more money for better schools. A decade ago, the district got its wish and now spends $6,060 per student, almost $500 more than the state average. After receiving more than $300 million in additional funding since 1993, Edgewood’s performance is still far below the state average. As Herrick describes it:

“At John F. Kennedy High School, the district’s main trouble spot, some freshman English students cannot write a complete sentence. Others cannot speak English, despite years in bilingual education. Kids talk back to their teachers, ignore assignments and wander the halls–with little consequence. One girl reported she was raped in a school bathroom.

“Not even two-thirds of Edgewood’s students pass the state’s basic skills test in reading, writing, and math, a number that is rising steadily but still lags significantly behind the state passing rate. More than half of Edgewood students who enroll as freshmen in the district’s two high schools do not graduate. Almost four of five Edgewood graduates are unprepared for college.”

Herrick contrasts the persistent failure of Edgewood with the remarkable success of El Paso’s Ysleta School District, which is slightly poorer than Edgewood and yet today is the highest-achieving of the state’s eight largest urban school districts. While both school districts were struggling a few years ago, 80 percent of Ysleta’s students last year passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test in reading, writing, and math. Only 62 percent of Edgewood’s students passed the same test.

Those who question whether the competition generated by school choice can improve the public schools need look no further than Ysleta. Ysleta’s remarkable improvement began when Superintendent Anthony Trujillo instituted a school choice plan after taking over the district a few years ago. Ysleta students were allowed to attend the school of their choice within the district, with more than $5,000 in per-pupil funding following them to the school.

Although Trujillo gave his principals considerable freedom in managing their budgets, he also demanded student achievement. A principal’s contract was extended only if 80 percent of his or her students passed all parts of the TAAS test. From 1992 to 1998, Trujillo replaced 32 of 52 principals and two-thirds of the teachers. But today, Ysleta schools are so popular with parents that 2,000 students from neighboring districts attend the district’s schools.

Competition for students now faces Edgewood, with the locally financed Horizon Scholarship Fund providing low-income families with full tuition scholarships worth up to $4,000 per student to attend area private schools. Although barely 5 percent of Edgewood’s students took advantage of the scholarships in the first year, this number is expected to grow in future years and spur improvements in the local public schools.

“In the real world, competition forces bureaucratic institutions to be responsive to our needs,” Texas Justice Foundation president Allan Parker told Herrick. “Customers have power because they don’t have to take failure and excuses.”