An Unlikely Coalition Gives Vouchers New Momentum Business Groups, Roman Catholics, and a Growing Number of Urban Poor Push Choice to Top of Political Agenda

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Alphonso Harrell is Exhibit A in the latest school-choice debate. As a third-grader, he was one of 1,100 Indianapolis students to win a $900 scholarship to offset the costs of attending another school. He says the choice changed his life.

"I couldn't learn in my old school because I had to watch out who I was talking to. They all wanted to fight," he says.

"My son would have been lost" if vouchers had not come to the rescue, his mother, Barbara Lewis, tearfully told a press briefing as she stood flanked by top Republican leaders in the Capitol last week. "He used to be excited about learning, but he kept getting hurt at school." Alphonso is one of some 14,000 students nationwide who have used scholarships, or vouchers, to opt out of broken public schools. Most scholarships have been privately funded by business and civic groups. Some 40,000 students remain on waiting lists for a voucher. Americans have come reluctantly to the idea of committing public funds to school choice. Voters have repeatedly rejected voucher proposals, worried that public schools would decline further. Courts, concerned about church-state issues, have been wary of allowing tax dollars to go to religious schools. But an unlikely coalition of business groups, the religious right, Roman Catholics, and the urban poor is pushing school choice to the top of the political agenda. They are proposing new tax credits and deductions for K-12 expenses, including private-school tuition. Their momentum could set the battle lines for the 1998 midterm elections. And Republican strategists say the newest members of the coalition - blacks, who have traditionally opposed public funds for private schools - could drive a wedge between teachers and urban minorities, who have been key Democratic supporters. "This is truly the civil rights battle of the '90s. How long? How long before we empower parents to send kids to quality schools?" asks Alveda King, echoing the civil rights rallying cry of her uncle, Martin Luther King Jr. "We're the underground railway conductors of the '90s," adds Jackie Sissel, a member of the Indianapolis-based Families Organized for Real Choice in Education (FORCE). "I don't favor national school vouchers, but we've had to face up to the fact that old ideas don't work everywhere," says Rep. Thomas Davis (R) of Virginia, who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing the District of Columbia. "It's costing up to $9,600 a year to educate a child in the D.C. public system. The schools are so broken that every effort to fix them has failed. You just can't get rid of incompetent teachers and administrators," he adds. Opponents, including the Clinton administration, teachers' unions, and the NAACP, argue that such proposals will drain money away from the public system and will leave most poor children trapped in bad schools. "The pitch has changed: It's more sophisticated, but such proposals are still vouchers in disguise. They harm public schools by taking attention away from reform in those schools," says acting deputy Education Secretary Marshall Smith. Battles over school choice have been a fairly permanent feature in American politics. Until the 1970s, arguments over school choice usually signaled disagreement over whether federal dollars should go to parochial schools. The nation provided public schools because they "strengthened democracy." Others had a right to set up private schools, but they were not entitled to and should not receive public funds, wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in a widely circulated 1949 column. Francis Cardinal Spellman, the most prominent Roman Catholic leader in the US, dubbed such views as "anti-Catholic." The debate was still so charged in 1960 that presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, took care to preempt the issue in his campaign. "I believe in an America where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference," he said in a landmark speech to Protestant ministers in Houston. …


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