School Choice Proposed for Pacific Islands

Published October 1, 1997

Democratic Governor Froilan C. Tenorio has proposed a Parental Choice Scholarship Program for all 12,000 students in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a commonwealth of the United States in the far Pacific, with its capitol on the island of Saipan. The program would give a grant of at least $2,000 to all students and would allow them to attend any school of their parents’ choice, public, private, or religious.

To assist in the new effort, Governor Tenorio invited a team of five experts from the United States, who traveled to the CNMI in late July. The team consisted of David B. Funderburk, former Congressman from North Carolina, who coordinated the trip; School Reform News contributing editor David W. Kirkpatrick, a distinguished scholar with the Blum Center at Marquette University; R. Clayton Trotter, distinguished fellow with the Texas State Justice Foundation; John C. Morris, principal of the two Hope Academies participating in Cleveland, Ohio’s school choice program; and Mitchell B. Pearlstein, founding president of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.

The team met several times with the Governor; members of the CNMI Parent-Teacher Association, which later endorsed the program; members of the legislature, including the House Education Committee; and the Board of Education, which voted 3-1 with one absent to oppose the program. The group visited schools on the islands of Rota and Tinian as well as Saipan, and participated with the Governor in an open-air public forum to answer questions about the program.

When he submitted his proposal to the legislature, Tenorio said that parents should be free to send their children to the school of their choosing and argued that this would help children succeed.

“Experience shows that when parents are involved in selecting schools, they are much more likely to be more involved in the educational process,” he declared. “When parents are more involved, children are much more likely to succeed.”

Although Independent Congressman Heinz S. Hofschneider has also introduced legislation to authorize a similar scholarship program, Tenorio wants the legislature to consider his own bill, which, he emphasized, has been carefully designed to avoid constitutional problems if the law is challenged. The visiting team advised the Governor and legislators to expect such a challenge, but believed the law would pass.

“The Governor’s bill has tremendous grassroots support,” said Funderburk. “Everyone is for it.”

CNMI has no teacher union, and thus there is no organized opposition to the bill. Supporters are optimistic that the measure will pass with bipartisan support. Even Governor Tenorio’s opponents in the November election, including Lt. Governor Jesus C. Borja, support the program.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].