Scholarships anger voucher opponents

Some activists say private tuition offer hurts public schools

April 23, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

It might seem like a concept that would be above criticism: A billionaire Wall Street financier wanted to hand out $100 million to help needy children pay tuition at private schools.

But advocates of public education questioned Theodore J. Forstmann's program yesterday, saying the 40,000 scholarships of up to $1,500 each -- including 500 awards in Baltimore -- will encourage parents to flee public schools.

That the philanthropy of the Children's Scholarship Fund could be interpreted as a sneak attack on the American educational system illustrates the intensity of the debate over the ability of parents to choose private schools over public ones.

The arguments over whether the popularity of the scholarships means that the government should also give parents taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools has been especially hot in Baltimore.

It is here that a staggering 44 percent of eligible parents -- the highest percentage of any city in the nation -- voiced their distrust of the city's public education system by applying to participate in the program last year.

Elliot Mincberg, a vice president of a public education advocacy organization called People for the American Way Foundation, criticized the scholarship program for providing ammunition for those fighting for taxpayer-financed vouchers.

Voucher programs, which give parents of public school students the option of receiving government certificates to help them pay private school tuition, drain students and money from struggling public schools, leaving them as the last refuge for the desperate, Mincberg said.

"Whenever rich people give money to underprivileged kids, that can't be a 100 percent bad thing," said Mincberg. "But our concern is that the scholarships will be used as a stalking-horse for those who would undermine the public schools by creating tax-payer-funded private schools."

Supporters of the Children's Scholarship Fund say the awards announced this week give low-income families an unprecedented opportunity to improve their children's education by shopping for private schools much as rich families do.

Fans of the program also point out that the scholarships -- each of which lasts for four years in the one-time giveaway -- are different from the public vouchers being used in Milwaukee and Cleveland because they are paid for by private donations from business leaders instead of taxpayers.

Beneficiaries of the program, which attracted 20,145 applications in Baltimore and 1.25 million nationally, include not only students but also Roman Catholic schools, which may receive 80 percent of the 380 students expected to leave Baltimore public schools, according to local school officials.

Because the scholarships are designed to pay only a portion of a child's private school tuition, the program is unlikely to help students into the city's most expensive prep schools, such as the $12,000-per-year Roland Park Country School.

The scholarships announced Wednesday were also too late for the application schedules of the city's most competitive private schools, some of which stopped accepting applications for next fall in January.

Less competitive private schools and some of the city's Catholic schools that have vacancies are taking applications for next year's class.

"I think this will be a huge plus for the Catholic schools and for the children, most of all," said Tom Sonni, director of development for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which has at least 1,700 spaces available in its 40 city schools.

James Courtovich, president of the New York City-based scholarship fund, said that the unexpectedly large number of parents applying for the scholarships in Baltimore and across the United States proves that parents want a choice of where to send their children to school.

"It is clear that the time has come for reforms that make opportunities for education equal for everyone," said Courtovich.

Patrick Perriello, coordinator of the office of guidance services for Baltimore public schools, said he doubts that many of the 500 low-income families that win the scholarships will be able to pay the more than $1,000 in tuition fees the private schools will require them to pay.

The city's Catholic schools charge about $2,800 a year for elementary school education, with the scholarships only paying a portion of this.

Kandy Wright, a 24-year-old single mother from Dundalk whose two sons won scholarships, said it will be hard for her to pay the about $2,600 necessary for them to attend Our Lady of Hope or another Catholic school next year.

"I couldn't afford it on my own," Wright said. "But between the children's fathers and their grandparents, we are going to pull together to pay the tuition, even if it means working a little harder and making some sacrifices."

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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