500 pupils win in education lottery

Low-income children awarded scholarships to private schools

Next step: applications

April 22, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Five hundred low-income children in Baltimore won scholarships to private and parochial schools of their choice yesterday in an educational lottery that tapped into their parents' distrust of the city's public school system.

The national Children's Scholarship Fund, started by a New York billionaire, attracted 20,145 applications from low-income families in the city, or 44 percent of city children who were eligible to apply, according to the fund.

The response from Baltimore was greater than any other city in the nation where the scholarships were offered, far exceeding the application rate of 33 percent in Washington and Philadelphia or 24 percent nationwide, fund officials said.

Applications were accepted from both public and private school children, but the vast majority came from public school pupils. The parents of nearly 15,000 city public school children in kindergarten through seventh grade applied in hopes of getting their children out of the public schools, even though they knew they would have to pay part of the tuition.

"People have always said, `These poor people don't care about their kids,' " said Howard Baetjer Jr., a member of the fund's Baltimore board of trustees. But the number of applicants shows that families are so desperate to get the best education for their children that they are willing to make financial sacrifices, he said.

The scholarship fund's leadership was at a loss to explain the enormous response, except to say that they had tried to get the word out through local churches and parochial schools.

Catholic schools, which account for half of the city's 60 private and parochial schools, are likely to get the largest number of award winners because the scholarships will not be large enough for children to attend the city's elite private schools, where tuitions run over $10,000 a year.

The response wasn't so surprising to the winners who formally accepted their awards yesterday in a ceremony at Port Discovery.

Cheryl Johnson applied because her 12-year-old son, Julian, is having a difficult sixth grade year at the city's public Hamilton Middle School.

"It has been a really trying year. I knew I had to make a change," Johnson said. But shortly after she filled out the application she saw an interview about the national scholarship program on the "Oprah Winfrey Show." "I thought, `Oh, no. There is another 10,000 applications.' " The fund received 100,000 phone calls after the show aired.

Johnson said she pretty much wrote off her son's chances. "I was speechless when I heard Sunday night."

Like nearly all of the other winners in Baltimore, Johnson now has to pick out a private school and apply. She will also have to come up with a portion of her son's tuition. The Children's Scholarship Fund pays a percentage of the tuition based on need. The poorest families can receive 70 percent of the tuition, up to a maximum of $1,500 a year.

Baetjer, the member of the Baltimore board, said the large response from city residents might indicate good networking on the part of his local group. A series of radio advertisements and the Oprah Winfrey interview didn't hurt. But, Baetjer said, it could also be the result of "a larger level of dissatisfaction" on the part of parents.

Nationally, the Children's Scholarship Fund has come under criticism from groups that oppose giving parents vouchers to send their children to private schools. Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued a statement saying the 40,000 scholarships given out in a nationwide lottery yesterday were an attempt to undermine the public school system.

J. Tyson Tildon, Baltimore's school board president, agreed. "This is a backhanded voucher system," Tildon said yesterday.

But he acknowledged that the outpouring of interest indicated dissatisfaction with the city's public schools. "It is indicative that we have to do a better job," he said. "I welcome the competition."

Baetjer said the Children's Scholarship of Baltimore has not taken a stand on the controversial issue of offering vouchers to private schools. Personally, he said, he has "strong reservations about tax-supported vouchers."

Far from undermining public education, he said, the scholarships will help build it. "This is the best possible thing for the public schools. They need a good kick in the rear end. They need to be able to say, `Look at the numbers. We are not satisfying our clients.' "

The fund was begun when billionaire Wall Street financier Theodore J. Forstmann pledged $100 million for scholarships. John Walton, chief executive of Wal-Mart, joined him to raise money all over the country. In Baltimore, four foundations and one business have pledged $1 million to match the donation from the national fund.

The local contributors are the Morris Goldseker Foundation, the France-Merrick Foundation, the Erickson Foundation, the Abell Foundation and Legg Mason Inc.

In Baltimore, the average family income of the students receiving the scholarships is $21,450. The amount of tuition each family must pay will be based on a sliding scale, but most families will have to contribute about $1,000 each year.

About 380 of the scholarship winners are city public school students and will be leaving the public schools for private schools.

If they were all concentrated in one neighborhood, it would be enough to allow the city to close a school. But, said Tildon, the school board won't realize a savings because the students are spread throughout the system.

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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