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
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
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
"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. …