Why Not Educational Choice for All?

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Parents of some 13,500 poor children across the country are working extra jobs, postponing paying some bills and even skipping meals to rescue their kids from public schools.

These poor children are able to attend private schools thanks to a combination of parental sacrifice and tuition vouchers funded by a growing number of private voucher programs - 29 at present, with a 30th scheduled for New York City in the fall. The vouchers pay a percentage of the tuition (varying from program to program, but about half in most), and parents must pay the remainder..

Fritz Steiger, president of the Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation (CEO America), an umbrella organization that keeps track of the private voucher programs and makes seed grants to some, reports that 20,000 children are on waiting lists for the programs.

The largest private voucher program is in Milwaukee, where more than 4,000 children are using the vouchers. About 1,000 children receive vouchers in Indianapolis, where the movement originated, the same number in San Antonio, and about 800 in Los Angeles. When the New York program begins, it is expected to be the second largest, with 1,300 students.

But numbers mean little compared to what the vouchers have meant in the lives of some poor families. Bear in mind that, even with the vouchers, coming up with several hundreds dollars for their share of the tuition is a real stretch for most of these low-income families.

But they think it is worth it. For example, a single mother of two told an audience in Austin, Texas, that her children were failing in the public school because they were afraid. Now, she said, with the children in a private school, one was making A's, the other C's, and she was feeling less stress even though having to struggle to pay her part of the tuition, because she wasn't concerned about her kids' safety. She couldn't have managed it without the vouchers, she said.

Indeed, interviews and surveys have indicated that safety is the single reason most often cited by poor parents who want the private vouchers for their children. Discipline and values are also ranked ahead of academics. However, that generally doesn't mean learning is unimportant to these parents. It means that they want their children to learn in a safe environment where discipline and values are recognized as integral parts of a true education in a safe environment where discipline and values are recognized as integral parts of a true education.

The private voucher movement began in 1991 when Pat Rooney, chairman of Golden Rule Insurance Company, committed $2 million to provide vouchers to low-income children in Indianapolis. Rooney and other voucher proponents pointed out that middle- and upper-income families could choose to leave their local public schools if the schools were bad. They asked why lower-income families shouldn't have the same opportunity.

This was the same point Polly Williams, a black state legislator in Wisconsin, had been making earlier to state government. Overcoming a court challenge from the teachers' union, Rep. Williams' efforts led to the first publicly funded school voucher program in the country for children from low-income families, in Milwaukee. It too began in 1991 and furnished vouchers to a limited number of children to attend nonsectarian schools.

In the time that private vouchers have spread from Indianapolis to 28 other cities, the number of cities with publicly funded vouchers has increased by only one - and the teachers' union is still trying to cut it back to zero.

A voucher program that would let more than 2,500 low-income Cleveland students attend any school of their choice, including religious schools, has survived a lower court challenge. While the ruling is under appeal, Cleveland kids are using the vouchers.

The Wisconsin Legislature voted to expand Milwaukee's choice program to as many as 15,000 students by the 1996-97 school year, give them vouchers worth about $3,200 each, and allow them full choice, including religious schools, but opponents have managed to thwart the effort thus far. Only about 1,720 students are in the publicly funded program now, and the number must be cut back to 1,550 next school year unless an appeal filed last week with the Wisconsin Supreme Court is successful.

So at this point we have at least 20,000 children whose parents are willing to stretch their low incomes somehow if the children can get privately funded vouchers to pay part of the tuition for better schools. We have thousands of other children in low-income families around the country who don't have any choice except to attend inferior or dangerous public schools. And we have a teachers' union, many of whose members send their own children to private schools, fighting tooth and nail to keep the low-income families from having the same choice.

Something is wrong with this picture. Can the teachers' union tell us what it is we don't understand about it?