Here’s an Opportunity to Make an Impact on Our Schools!

Published March 1, 1999

Bert L. Holt, program director for the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, has been involved in education for 35 years, starting as an inner-city elementary school teacher in Cleveland. In the early 1960s, she was a lead elementary teacher in the Department School in Paris, France. Upon her return to the United States, she became an elementary reading teacher in Hampton, Virginia, where she was known as the educator who “could teach a rock to read.”

It was in Hampton that Holt first encountered school choice since, at that time, there was freedom of choice in Virginia’s schools: African-Americans could choose the school they would like their child to attend. Although Holt taught at a predominantly white school, there were some African-American children there who had selected that school for their education.

After returning to Cleveland, she became Department Chair in Social Studies at the Alexander Hamilton School and at West Technical High School before leaving the teaching field to work on staff development for the schools as part of the court-ordered desegregation of the city’s schools. Subsequently, she became director of the University, Business and Cultural Program–another part of the desegregation order–that linked a range of organizations with the schools in Cleveland. She also was involved in a national advisory role with the National Association for Partnerships In Education.

In the Fall of 1995, Holt accepted a request to run the city’s newly created school voucher and tutoring program, which–since its conception–has been under constant fire from opponents of school choice both in the courts and in the media.

In January, the Ohio Department of Education’s administration of the program came under fire in a state audit. Holt spoke with School Reform News managing editor George Clowes after the audit was released.

Clowes: What was your reaction when you were offered the job of Program Director for the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program in 1995?

Holt: I said “Alleluia! Here’s an opportunity to make an impact on our schools.” In the 35 years I’d been in education, there had not been any change in the urban public schools. It was the same old thing for the parents: No choice. Either go to the school in the neighborhood, be assigned to cross-town busing for integration purposes, or take your chance in the lottery for a magnet school. But parents could not choose a school for their child.

Clowes: What are the essential features of the program?

Holt: There are two parts: scholarships and tutoring. The scholarships are available for students entering grades K-3 in the first year of the program and they continue as the child progresses to higher grades. The program gives preference to poorer students, and the students must live in the City of Cleveland. Those are the only requirements.

The program provides a scholarship of 90 percent of the private school tuition for families with household incomes up to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, with the percentage reduced to 75 percent where the household income is above the 200 percent poverty level. The majority of children in Cleveland are at or below the 200 percent level. In the first two years of the program, parents could select any school in the city and transportation was provided.

The tutoring aspects of the program give assistance to students in the City of Cleveland who continued in the public schools. It has a similar range of income qualifications so that parents with incomes above 200 percent of the poverty level pay more of the tutoring cost than those with incomes at 200 percent of poverty or less.

Clowes: What were you faced with when you became Program Director?

Holt: The first thing we faced was the very tight timeline of startup. I took the job in October 1995 with no office, no staff, no phone–nothing–and I had until January 1 to get applications out to the entire city. I got the office open on November 1 with a secretary and a person to set up the management information system.

One difficulty was that the Ohio Department of Education did not want to hire anyone full-time and so, for the first two years of the program, I was the only full-time person in the office. Everyone else was on a 30-day contract, which put us in an unstable situation. Now I have a full-time assistant director and a full-time transportation coordinator. Another difficulty, later on, was that the Education Department was unwilling to request necessary budget increases.

Clowes: How did you make people aware of the program?

Holt: We had articles about the program in the newspapers . . . but 75 percent of the people in the city do not read the newspaper. So we went to barbershops, hairdressers, preschool programs, Head Start programs, medical clinics, welfare offices, churches, mosques, and radio and TV. We talked with the managers of the housing projects and got the word out there. An organization called Hope for Cleveland’s Children was extremely helpful.

We also had to convince the private and religious schools that they should participate. One of their fears was that they would become part of a bureaucratic morass and be burdened with unnecessary paperwork and reports. We did everything we could to make sure that their operating burden was not increased as a result of scholarship students coming into their schools. We did dummy drafts of letters for them to copy, we sent scholarship student directories for them to correct, and we sent out attendance record forms for them to use. The one burden that we did place on them was to verify income.

Clowes: So you had a staff of three to administer a program that tracks about 4,000 students?

Holt: We have almost 4,000 scholarship students in our database, but we also keep records on over 17,000 applicants. We have given over 5,000 scholarships and so some people have left the program because they moved out of the city or because they got into a magnet program. Some of our parents are upwardly mobile. They’re young families, and once they have the children out of the household, they become a two-income working family and they go for the American Dream–they go to the suburbs just like other generations have.

As well as making sure the payroll is done, the children are enrolled, the attendance is in, and the children are transported, we have to respond to all the program’s constituencies. This includes parents, principals, evaluators, the community, and the media. It means answering to the legislative, executive, and judicial branches as well as to the Department of Education. Because we’re under the aegis of a court-delineated situation in terms of constitutionality, we must send volumes of material to the judicial branch and to the lawyers, so that when they go into court they have the necessary information to argue the case effectively. If we didn’t have an excellent program, the court would have thrown it out a long time ago.

Clowes: What was the purpose of the recent special audit report from the State Auditor’s Office?

Holt: Deloitte and Touche issued a disclaimer on its initial audit of the Scholarship and Tutoring Program because the Ohio Department of Education would not give the auditors comprehensive financial information on contracts it had awarded. For example, the department had signed evaluation contracts for $1 million to test 94 students. I would never have sanctioned that.

Also, the Education Department kept a record of all monies returned to the program, but did not report this to the auditors. For example, if a parent moved out of the city before they had been in the program for three months, we expected them to pay back every dime. In other cases, the Catholic Archdiocese–which was very sensitive about increasing tuition–had people give back money. All these dollars were returned to the Treasurer of the State of Ohio but not reported to the auditors.

In addition, there was an outcry regarding transportation for the scholarship students, which was the responsibility of the Cleveland School District. We put the children in taxis as a short-term solution while the school district organized buses for them, but Cleveland never provided enough buses until they were finally ordered to do so in January 1998.

Clowes: So it was the disclaimer that precipitated the special audit?

Holt: Yes. There was a special audit and a special transportation investigation. But they found nothing that was done incorrectly. This is a little program, operating on less than $9 million. We’re educating a child for, on average, $1,700. In Cleveland, it’s about $8,000 to educate a student. If they put other programs under the microscope the way they have done this one, it would be a different world for children in an urban setting.

The special audit reviewed the residency and income requirements for both the scholarship and tutoring programs. They reviewed program evaluation contracts entered into by the Department of Education, and taxicab contracts entered into by the Cleveland City School District. They also observed the scholarship lottery at our request. The auditors again criticized the Department of Education for withholding financial information.

Clowes: What about the criticism that too many of the scholarship children already were attending private schools?

Holt: We take only 25 percent of children who previously attended private schools. We could have taken up to the 50 percent–the law allows that–but the governor and others didn’t think that it was a good idea to have half from private schools. So we kept it at the 25 percent level.

Also, we took–by permission–only a limited number of students whose families had incomes above the 200 percent poverty level, even though the law allows more. We anticipated that parents would increase their income levels as their children got older, and they did. When we started the program, the majority of the parents were on AFDC. What we’re finding is that those parents are coming off AFDC and more than 50 percent of our parents now are employed. They are poor, but they are working. That’s to be celebrated.

Clowes: What about the issue of the lottery being held early?

Holt: The initial lottery was scheduled for the end of February, but we didn’t receive the applications we expected. We then realized that most people had not received their W-2s or AFDC paperwork to attach to their application, and so we moved the lottery to a later date and extended applications until March 31. That’s something you learn as you work through these pilot programs.

After the lottery, we kept open the opportunity for any parent to send in an application until the end of August 1998. Even though the lottery assigned all the scholarships, the people didn’t take all of them, leaving some slots open. Every year, we have always had scholarships available for any poor child that applied, and every poor child was offered a scholarship. The only thing that is stopping the children from getting scholarships is that we are running out of seats in the schools that they want.

Clowes: What about the tutoring program?

Holt: We had a variety of people with satisfactory background checks who wanted to be tutors and more than 2,000 children who wanted tutors, but many public schools did not participate in the program. So we offered tutoring at community sites–in community centers and churches. We have about 600 tutors available who are not Cleveland teachers, but retired teachers and teacher’s aides. We did tutor training sessions for them and gave them proficiency information.

Clowes: What advice do you have for legislators who are planning to set up pilot programs in other cities and in other states?

Holt: Number one, if you are going to set up a program that is outside the public school arena, do not house it in the public school state office. If you do place the responsibility with the State Department of Education, then make sure that they are ready to take on the program–not just give it lip service–and support it in the same way they support programs for public schools.

The second part is to create a separate unit for the program, where there is full concentration and full-time staff, and where fiscal and administrative controls rest firmly with the director of the program. In the scholarship program, evaluation costs and transportation costs caused the 1997-98 budget overrun, but the Ohio Department of Education was responsible for the budgetary decisions that caused the shortfall.

Finally, you have to have a person that’s willing to put in the time and energy to make it happen, and be thick-skinned. Desegregation was not a popular issue, and it was very difficult. The voucher issue is not a popular one, and it’s very difficult, too.

We are doing this for the children. I’ve been in the education business long enough to see three–going on four–generations in the City of Cleveland not being educated. But even out in the suburbs, with their excellent schools, their students are last in the world in physics.