School vouchers gain momentum

May 04, 1999|By Neal R. Peirce

FRESHMAN Gov. Jeb Bush deserves the nationwide attention he's garnered for persuading the Florida legislature to approve America's first statewide school voucher plan.

What's most ingenious about the Florida plan is its targeting -- private school vouchers of up to $4,000 a year, but only to kids who've been in schools that rank lowest in the state in comprehensive student testing.

By linking the new "opportunity scholarships," to the possibility of brightened life prospects for thousands of kids now trapped in the most benighted schools, Mr. Bush has given the entire voucher concept a moral stature it's never before enjoyed.

The most seriously failing schools are in large inner-city school systems, typically racked by bureaucratic inertia and indifference. A cynic might say Republicans are focusing on urban schools because they're a stronghold of the GOP's implacable political enemies, the teacher unions.

But if Republicans and other conservatives are willing to step up to the plate for America's most deprived youngsters, and then stick with that cause until positive results are achieved, who's to complain?

Florida's action, in legislation passed on Friday, comes on the heels of the most conclusive proof ever that parents of poor children want better schools and would be glad to leave public schools to get it.

Theodore Forstmann, the billionaire Wall Street financier, offered 40,000 four-year scholarships nationwide -- valued at $600 to $1,600 a year -- for students entering kindergarten through the eighth grade across the country.

How many applications came back? An amazing 1,237,360. They poured in from all 50 states, from 22,000 communities. Winners will be picked by lottery.

The parental responses constitute "a cry from the heart" for better education for their children, says Mr. Forstmann.

For years, says Mr. Forstmann, defenders of the status quo have suggested that just more money for more teachers, smaller class sizes and other such reforms, would solve the schools' problems. Yet even with quadrupling of school budgets since 1960, student performance has stagnated. In cities like Detroit, less than 30 percent of kids make it through high school.

Economist Milton Friedman, originator of the voucher movement in the United States, still favors vouchers for all students, even affluent ones. But real world need -- especially the plight of black, Hispanic and immigrant children in inner cities and some rural areas -- is driving a new politics right now.

Pennsylvania plan

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Ridge has forsaken his earlier plan for statewide vouchers in favor of a five-year pilot plan in seven urban areas, among them Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is fighting hard for statewide vouchers, but would start with a program available to about 100,000 poor children.

Florida's plan may well become a national model. It carefully ranks all schools, A to F, based on rigorous statewide testing and reporting on attendance, dropouts and discipline. If a school gets "F's" twice in four years, its students can transfer to another public school or ask for a voucher. To participate, private schools must be at least a year old, demonstrate fiscal soundness, and be willing to accept kids without regard to their academic records.

Educational competition

The program starts slowly, limited to students from just four low-performing schools next fall, perhaps some 40 schools (with 36,000 students) in fall 2000. Though it will eventually cover the whole state, the goal isn't to drive up voucher numbers; it's to drive schools to perform better out of fear of the stigma of the dreaded "F."

But a radical system change is imperative, says Mr. Bush: "Half of [our] kids graduate from high school. Half are reading below basic levels in the fourth grade. This is vital for our long-term competitiveness as a state, vital for restoring our civil society. It will improve public schools."

Florida's vouchers don't stand alone. They're part of an expensive education plan built around standards, testing and an end to social promotion. A half-billion dollars will be available to tutor students in the weakest schools.

And if more money is needed, "You bet I'm going to be there," Mr. Bush promises: "This is not the end. This is the beginning."

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/04/99

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