Texas Gets First District-Wide Voucher Program

Published May 1, 1998

For the first time ever, thousands of students in an entire Texas school district will be able to exercise school choice through a new, privately funded, voucher program. Under the auspices of the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation of America (CEO America), the CEO Horizon organization announced the launching of its voucher program on April 22. The group has committed at least $50 million to fund the program by providing at least $5 million a year for at least ten years.

“The Horizon project will give the entire nation a glimpse of real education reform through parental choice,” said CEO America president Fritz Steiger.

With San Antonio business leaders like James Leininger, founder of Kenetic Concepts, providing most of the $50 million funding, CEO Horizon will offer full-tuition scholarships to nearly all of the 14,000 students in grades K-12 throughout the Edgewood Independent School District beginning this fall. Students may use the scholarship at any private or religious school of their parents’ choice. The program is the first in the country to offer full-tuition scholarships to an entire school district.

All students qualifying for the federal free lunch program are eligible for annual CEO Horizon scholarships of up to $3,600 in grades K-8 and up to $4,000 for grades 9-12. The Edgewood district’s population is predominantly Hispanic, and more than half its families live below the poverty level. The district is served by at least four private schools with tuition ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 a year.

The unique initiative won immediate praise from the Institute for Justice, a Washington, DC-based public interest law firm that is defending a wide variety of school choice programs across the country, including one facing a teachers union challenge to the use of tax credits for contributions to privately funded scholarship programs in Arizona. Teachers unions also have attacked voucher programs for low-income youngsters in Milwaukee and Cleveland.

“This is the first unlimited district-wide school choice program in America, and there’s nothing the special-interest groups can do about it,” declared Clint Bolick, the Institute’s litigation director.

Although choice opponents claimed the privately funded Horizon scholarships would take tax dollars away from public schools and allow private schools to pick the best students, Bolick predicted that the program would be a catalyst for publicly and privately funded school choice programs nationwide.

“We will see that the sky will not fall,” he said. “Parental involvement will grow, the kids will do better, and competition will force improvement in the public schools.”

The Edgewood District was chosen not because it was the worst in the city, but because it was large enough to make a difference and yet still small enough to monitor for research and analysis on the effects of choice. Harvard University’s Paul E. Peterson will follow the project to assess its effects not only on student performance but also on the quality and availability of public and private education options.

Among the questions that the Horizon experiment may help answer are:

  • Do the grades of “at-risk” students improve when parents are allowed to select their child’s school?
  • How does a school district compete to keep students enrolled?
  • What effect do scholarships have on a district’s property values and population?

While research considerations were important in developing the Horizon program, the Institute for Justice’s president, Chip Mellor, offered a bottom-line perspective. “This is about businesspeople and other concerned individuals making an investment in children who desperately need a good education,” he said.

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