Conditions ripe for voucher bid


Opportunity: Baltimore has pent-up demand for educational equality.

July 03, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

COMMON WISDOM holds that last week's U.S. Supreme Court endorsement of private-school vouchers won't lead to a voucher run in Maryland.

We are, after all, the "Free State" whose voters twice rejected parochial school aid plans. We have a powerful teachers union traditionally opposed to all forms of school choice. Even charter schools - schools independently operated with public funds - haven't budged off the dime in the General Assembly. The public school monopoly seems rock solid.

Or is it?

Consider the similarities between Baltimore and Cleveland, the city whose voucher program was appealed to the high court. Both have thousands of children denied an education equal in quality to that of their peers in the suburbs. And both have popular voucher plans allowing low-income families to opt for private and religious schools.

Cleveland's plan, of course, is the one given a constitutionally clean bill of health by the Supreme Court. The Children's Scholarship Fund of Baltimore is privately financed by local individuals and organizations whose money is matched by a national scholarship fund established by financier Theodore J. Forstmann and John Walton of the Wal-Mart founding family.

The Baltimore program was launched four years ago, and nearly everyone was surprised when 20,000 city kids applied for 400 scholarships. When school starts, an additional 500 kids will enter private schools with scholarships that typically pay about half of tuition - the first expansion of the program. Just as in Cleveland, most will use their scholarships at church schools, primarily those in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Technically, this isn't a voucher program. Trying to steer clear of the politics surrounding vouchers, organizers eschewed even the word "voucher." But this program - publicized almost entirely by word of mouth - is proof that there's pent-up demand for school choice among Baltimore's low-income parents.

"We found huge and surprising demand in Baltimore," says Rick Hough, national program director of the Children's Scholarship Fund. "It's heavier there than in some cities where public schools are more desperate."

Consider also the strange bedfellows that took vouchers to the nation's high court. They were a coalition of conservatives long associated with school choice and mostly liberal, inner-city blacks - people like Fannie Lewis, a grandmother from Cleveland's Hough neighborhood; former Milwaukee schools Superintendent Howard Fuller; and Polly Williams, a state legislator from an impoverished, mostly black district in Milwaukee.

These folks aren't crazy right-wingers who want to get kids out from under the thumb of government. Rather, they regard school choice as a civil rights issue.

"Poor families ought to have the same options as rich families," says Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the West Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Rawlings twice introduced voucher legislation in the mid-1990s.

Rawlings says he'll no longer champion vouchers, though he favors the concept. "After failing in the legislature, I turned my attention to helping transform the school system and then bring more than $1 billion to poor children in Maryland," he says, referring to the 1997 reform of city schools and this year's Thornton legislation, which will pump $1.3 billion into the state equalization formula over the next six years.

But it wouldn't take many legislators from places like Baltimore, Prince George's or even Montgomery County to put vouchers at the top of the agenda. One poll shows that a slight majority of the general public favors vouchers, while 68 percent of African-Americans endorse them.

And in February, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, an organization promoting voucher schemes in the cities, opened a Maryland branch. "There's a lot of work to do," says spokesman Boyce W. Slayman. "We think we have a good shot in places like Baltimore, where people are fed up with public education."

The fourth-year report on Direct Instruction

Four years ago, The Sun published a letter from a Towson University education professor taking to task the "commercial, profit-driven" reading and math program known as Direct Instruction then new to City Springs Elementary in East Baltimore. Let's give it a chance, I suggested, and vowed to review the school's scores yearly. Herewith the fourth-year report:

City Springs' scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (now called TerraNova) have increased steadily and dramatically since 1998 in all five grades in both subjects. Children this year scored above the national median (50 percent) in four of five grades in math and reading, a huge accomplishment for one of the city's most impoverished schools.

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