A school voucher success story

December 01, 1997

CLEVELAND -- St. Vincent DePaul Elementary School in Cleveland looks like any other Catholic school in America: eager pupils, orderly classrooms, smart uniforms. But in one way it is unique: The state of Ohio pays many of its pupils' tuition fees.

Cleveland has the only school voucher program in the country that allows poor pupils to attend the school of their choice, secular or religious.

Eligible families are reimbursed for 90 percent of their tuition costs, up to $2,500.

Legislative action

The Ohio legislature created the program in 1996 for Cleveland pupils from entry to the end of third grade: that is, between the ages of 6 and 8. In the first year, more than 6,000 children applied for 2,000 places in the scheme.

Vouchers (called ''scholarships,'' which sounds better) were given to all children with family incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line; some more were awarded by lottery. The program has been expanded to include 3,000 pupils up to fourth grade at 55 private schools, including two Islamic academies.

Has it made any difference? A recent report by the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance suggests that it has.

The study surveyed roughly 1,000 parents whose children received vouchers and attended a private school in 1996-97 and 1,000 parents whose children applied for the program but did not enroll.

Two-thirds of the voucher parents reported that they were ''very satisfied'' with the academic quality of their school, compared with fewer than a third of the public-school parents.

The voucher parents were also twice as likely to be ''very satisfied'' with the safety, discipline, moral values and individual attention offered by their schools.

And the children are doing better. The researchers examined test scores for roughly 20 percent of the voucher pupils. These gained, on average, five percentage points in reading and 15 points in maths, compared with national norms. The only decline was in first-grade language skills.

Challenging assumptions

The Cleveland program challenges some assumptions about how private schools and parents respond to the market.

Private schools did not close their doors to the poorest pupils. About 75 percent of the voucher students are poor, and two-thirds are black.

Nor did the private schools purge themselves of the most difficult pupils at the end of the first year. Fewer than 0.5 percent of parents reported that their children had been expelled.

In choosing schools, Cleveland's parents punctured the patronizing notion that poor families will select a school for the ''wrong'' reasons.

Among scholarship parents, 85 percent said academic quality was a ''very important'' reason for taking part in the voucher program, and 79 percent said that safety was.

Meanwhile, the supply of private schools has expanded. In the autumn of 1996 a local businessman, David Brennan, founded two schools, Hope Central Academy and Hope Ohio City.

Mr. Brennan knows a lot about teaching basic skills. In the process of buying and turning around more than 30 companies, he realized that a third of the employees he encountered were illiterate and two-thirds could not do basic mathematics.

'Treading water'

He developed and implemented a remedial education program. When he offered to share his program with the public schools, however, he spent three years ''treading water.''

So, after the Cleveland voucher program was set up, Mr. Brennan decided to start his own schools. The Hope academies now have 350 voucher pupils.

The Cleveland program has had its logistical challenges. All scholarship pupils are entitled to public transportation, but, with children going all over the city, the network is complex. Some pupils take buses, others are shuttled in minivans and some arrive at school every day by taxi.

And, because poor families move frequently and often do not have telephones, the program directors have had a difficult time locating children who are awarded scholarships.

When they were contacted for the Harvard survey, more than 40 percent of the families that were awarded scholarships but did not enroll said they were not aware they had been selected.

In the end, the program's fate will probably be decided in the courts, not the classroom.

A coalition, including Ohio's two largest teachers' unions, challenged the constitutionality of the voucher program in 1996, on the ground that it violates the separation of church and state. A lower court upheld the constitutionality of the program, but the decision was reversed on appeal.

The state's Supreme Court has ruled that the program should continue for a year while the lawyers fight it out. Eventually the issue will go to the U.S. Supreme Court, says David Strauss, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

If the Cleveland program is ruled unconstitutional, the pupils concerned will have to pay their own tuition costs or return to the public schools.

Roberta Kitchen is the guardian of two students who receive Cleveland scholarships. ''I just like the opportunity to send my children where I think they can get the best education,'' she says.

A pretty simple concept, really.

This is an excerpt from an article in the Nov. 29 The Economist magazine.

Pub Date: 12/01/97

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