When the Horizon district-wide school choice program was announced in April 1998, critics wasted little time in condemning the initiative, predicting it would draw the best students from the Edgewood public schools in San Antonio, Texas, and drain much-needed dollars from the district’s own reform efforts.
But according to a report of early results from the program, children who need help the most are the ones taking advantage of the choice scholarships. Moreover, per-pupil spending in the public schools has increased as a result of the CEO Horizon Project.
“I challenge those officials who continue to resist efforts to empower parents with choice, to look closely and with an open mind at the results of this report,” said CEO America President Fritz Steiger when the comprehensive report was released on February 9, after completion of the first semester. Steiger used the findings of the report to respond to critics of school choice.
Private Schools Don’t Just Choose the Best
CHARGE: The scholarships would “provide private schools with their choice of students,” said Edgewood School Superintendent Delores Munoz last April. Edgewood School District Board President Manuel Garza agreed, asserting it was “a fact . . . that a public school accepts all children and private schools do not.”
REALITY: Private schools accepted almost every applicant, regardless of academic standing. Of the 57 private schools participating in the Horizon program, only eight screened applicants prior to admission.
Choice Doesn’t Skim the Cream
CHARGE: Vouchers will allow private schools to “cherry pick” the best students and shorten the public school honor roll, predicted John O’Sullivan, secretary-treasurer of the Texas Federation of Teachers.
REALITY: The Horizon program does not result in private schools “skimming the cream” and taking only the best and brightest students. Although scholarship students showed high scores on their public school report cards, many failed to pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills tests. When subjected to the Horizon program’s baseline tests, the students performed below average in reading and mathematics.
Students Left Behind Have More Resources
CHARGE: Superintendent Munoz raised concerns that the district would lose funds because of the voucher program, hurting the students left behind.
REALITY: State funding for public schools in Texas is based on prior-year enrollment, so the loss of 566 students from the public schools has made more money available for the students remaining in the Edgewood School District in the 1998-99 school year. For the 1999-2000 school year, the loss of students and the loss of funding are roughly the same, between 3.5 and 4.0 percent of the total.
As one of its responses to the Horizon program, the Edgewood school district agreed to take students from other districts. Some 200 students transferred into Edgewood schools. Although the loss of these students “cost” their home districts at least $775,000, critics did not accuse Edgewood of hurting these districts by “draining” dollars from them. Also, when Edgewood lost some 500 students through closure of a public housing project, the closure decision was not criticized publicly by school officials.
New Vermont Fund Offers Scholarships
While the initials S.O.S. are known internationally as a distress signal, they now bring hope to low-income Vermont students. The new Vermont Student Opportunity Scholarship Fund will offer 100 school choice grants this fall. The scholarships–which are guaranteed for three years if the family remains eligible–are for 50 percent of tuition up to $2,000 per year at any public or private school.
Eligible students must be residents of Vermont entering grades K-8 and must qualify for the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch program. Students already enrolled in independent schools will receive no more than 25 percent of the scholarships awarded annually. Scholarship recipients were chosen by lottery on April 5. Vermont S.O.S. already has raised half of the $2 million it needs to run the program.
“I talk to parents every day about their dreams and hopes for their kids and how frustrated they are because they cannot do more with their limited finances,” said Roxanne Leopold, director of the King Street Center, where the program was announced on February 1. For many parents and children, the program offers “a chance many of them thought they would never have.”
For more information on the program, contact Sara M. Gear at 888/558-8883.
Stepping Up the PACE in South Carolina
On February 11, the Partners Advancing Choice in Education Foundation of South Carolina, Inc. announced a new, privately funded, statewide tuition grant program for low-income children in grades 1-6. Good for a maximum of $2,000 a year for three years, the grants will fund 30 to 60 percent of tuition at a student’s public or private school of choice.
“We want to provide low-income children with the same educational opportunities that higher income families can already access,” said PACE Foundation Board Chairman Dr. Earle Lingle.
Fueled by an anonymous partnership commitment of $90,000, the initial program will allow 15 Spartanburg children to attend their schools of choice. The program will be expanded throughout the state as new partnership commitments are secured.
“By announcing this grant, we are inviting other individuals, businesses, and foundations throughout South Carolina to join hands with us in the effort to provide these children with the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Jonathan Hudgens, PACE executive director.
For more information on the PACE program, contact Hudgens at 800/726-7223.