A Chance to View Real School Choice

Commentary by Pete du Pont

One of the more exciting developments ever in the school choice movement will begin next fall in the 14,000-student Edgewood Independent School District in a suburb of San Antonio, Texas.

For the first time ever, there will be school choice in an entire school district. Every Edgewood child from kindergarten through the 12th grade who is eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program - and that's 93 percent of them - will also be eligible for a full, privately funded tuition scholarship at any school, private or public, that will admit the child. The goal is not only to improve the lives of the scholarship recipients but also to determine the impact of true school choice.

Here is an opportunity to relieve overcrowding in the public schools, to allow parents to select the school for their child based on the child's needs rather than where the family lives and to give both the public schools and private schools an incentive for improvement.

Will parents move their children out of low-performing schools? How will the public schools react? How much more will the students who transfer learn? And what about those who don't transfer? The sponsors of the Edgewood program, to be known as the Horizon Project, have committed a minimum of $50 million - $5 million a year for 10 years - to finding the answers. CEO America, an umbrella group that works with 36 privately funded school voucher programs across the country, and Dr. James Leininger, a San Antonio physician and businessman, are together contributing $45 million. The other $5 million will come from the Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation of San Antonio, which operates a local voucher program.

The fact that this is a long-term project is important. For one thing, there are only about 150 openings at private schools in the Edgewood district and another 2,000 in Bexar County, where the district is located. However, the sponsors anticipate that existing private schools will expand and that educational entrepreneurs may open new schools to meet the demand, assuming it is there. Still, the program may require several years to fully implement.

There is plenty of evidence that the demand for school choice does exist. The private voucher programs around the nation pay up to half the private school tuition for children from low-income families. Despite the strain on low-income families to come up with the other half, more than 12,000 children are using the vouchers and thousands more are on the waiting list.

There is also evidence that school choice benefits both the students who transfer and those who stay behind. That's what happened at the Giffen Memorial elementary school, academically the worst school in Albany, N.Y. New York philanthropist Virginia Gilder offered private school scholarships to any student, and more than 100 of the 458 students accepted.

Although the Albany Board of Education criticized the scholarship offer as just "a political stunt," the school got a new principal, transferred nine teachers, added two assistant principals and pledged to spend an additional $125,000 for books, equipment and teacher training. The Albany school superintendent acknowledged that the changes resulted from the challenge.

The Giffen experience involved just one school. The Horizon Project involves an entire school district. There are districts that are worse academically than Edgewood, but few with more poverty. Forty-nine percent of the students are classified as living in poverty. The median household income in the district, which is 92% Hispanic, is $15,816 a year.

The Edgewood district is well known across Texas because it was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that eventually led to Texas' current "Robin Hood" financing system, which transfers tax revenue from more affluent school districts to those that are less affluent.

Now the district spends $5,854 per student compared to a state average of $5,282. Edgewood was selected for the project not because of what the public schools spend but because Horizon Project officials felt that students from a district with such low-income families would have the most to gain from school choice. They also decided that size of the district allowed full funding of scholarships for any student.

Another reason for selecting Edgewood was its proximity to San Antonio, the second city in the country (Indianapolis was the first) to have a private voucher program. In fact, Dr. Leininger, Fritz Steiger and Robert Aguirre, who were instrumental in starting the San Antonio program in 1992, founded CEO America.

The separate San Antonio program will continue, expanding next school year from its current 863 vouchers to more than 1,200.

Paul Peterson of Harvard University, who has studied school choice programs across the country, will conduct annual studies of the Horizon Project to determine the impact on both private and public school students. You can be sure that proponents and opponents of school choice - and people who want to see what happens before they decide - will be watching.