Public School Exit Visas Private Groups Expand Scholarships for Low-Income Students to Attend Better Schools

Article excerpt

Jim and James Rogers were so worried about the safety of local public schools that they were about to send their daughters to live with relatives in Virginia. Then the Washington Scholarship Fund offered the family another option.

Now, Cecillia and Anjelica attend Grades 2 and 5 at St. Thomas More Cathedral School, a Roman Catholic school in Arlington, Va. The grass is cropped, boys wear ties to the sandbox, and there's not a broken window in sight.

The girls like the school, and Kim says she's not afraid to send them off in the morning. With the help of the private foundation, the $4,860 annual tuition is within reach. Such private funds to help poor families exit public schools are springing up all over the country. Sponsors, such as venture- capitalist Theodore Forstmann, say they want to give poor families the same opportunity as others to choose a good school for their children. "We absolutely must give parents the ability to seek a good education wherever they can find it," said Mr. Forstmann, in Washington last month to announce new private-scholarship programs in 36 cities, as well as Arkansas and Michigan. He and Wal-Mart heir John Walton pledged $100 million and have since raised another $75 million for their Children's Scholarship Fund, which will give away 35,000 scholarships by lottery on April 17, 1999. It's the private side of the hottest topic in American education: the use of state money to finance an exit from public schools. The US Supreme Court and state courts from Maine to Wisconsin are weighing the constitutionality of public vouchers for private schools, many of which are religious. But in the meantime, private philanthropists are leaping into the breach with programs to make private school affordable for at least some poor families. Leery of how public schools might spend their money, these philanthropists are handing out scholarships to private programs from Texas to Michigan. If these kids do better than those that stay in public schools, they will help build a case for reforming public schools through competition. More than 15,000 students nationally used private scholarships from 41 programs to leave public schools this year. Private scholarships are now available in 31 states, according to a new survey by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Program directors say that demand is growing, especially among African-American families in poor city schools. Some 7,500 families applied for 1,000 private scholarships in Washington this year. "We visited four public schools in our neighborhood, but we just couldn't let the kids go to school in those places," says Mrs. Rogers. "There were guards on the playground, drunkies on the street, and the tables in classrooms looked as if they might fall on the children. I went home and cried." (School authorities declined requests for a visit to confirm these observations.) "I've seen jails better kept," adds staff Sgt. James Rogers, who recently transferred to Bolling Air Force Base, at the edge of one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington. Nearly half of the children living on the base attend private schools or are schooled at home. But medical treatment for Kim cut into the budget and the time she could give to home-schooling. "If we'd sent the kids away, I would have only seen them on weekends, but it would have been worth it. At least I'd know they were safe," she says. Safety and good teachers Safety and the quality of teaching are the biggest concerns of parents seeking private scholarships in Washington, says Patrick Purtill, president of the Washington Scholarship Fund. In a city where private-school tuition can top $15,000, most scholarship applicants wind up in Catholic parochial schools. "They're affordable and they're already in the neighborhoods where most of our applicants live," he adds. For example, tuition at St. Augustine in downtown Washington is $2,415 for non-parishioners. …