Going Private

School voucher programs that don't rely on government funds


Maria Gonzalez is not a fan of San Antonio public schools. At the beginning of the 1992–93 school year, she had four children in public schools, two in elementary school, two in middle school. But her youngest daughter was constantly crying in class, her oldest son was being roughed up, and her eighth-grade daughter was being pressured to join gangs.

Concerned with their academic, emotional, and physical well-being, Gonzalez wanted to get her children out, but she couldn't afford private school tuition. Fortunately, she could turn to the San Antonio Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation, a privately funded program that provides low-income children with vouchers to cover up to half of private school tuition.

Gonzalez applied for private school vouchers for her two youngest children in August 1993 and for her older kids in December. The CEO Foundation awards vouchers that pay up to one-half of tuition, with a cap of $75 per child per month. After CEO confirmed that the Gonzalez children meet the program's two basic requirements–that they qualify for the free or reduced-price federal school lunch program and live and attend school within the county–they were put on the waiting list.

Because the program gives priority to applicants currently in public school, they went to the top of the list. The younger children received vouchers within a month, the older children almost immediately. Gonzalez could then enroll her children in any area private schools that agreed to accept the vouchers. (CEO sends its contribution directly to the school.) This year, all four children are attending the non-denominational Sunnybrook Christian Academy.

The San Antonio CEO Foundation is not unique; similar programs operate in 14 other cities nationwide serving an estimated 7,000–8,000 children. Private vouchers are the brainchild of Pat Rooney, CEO of the Golden Rule Insurance Company, who organized the Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust program in 1991 to provide school choice to low-income children in the Indianapolis Public Schools district. Rooney hoped that when politicians and the public saw a voucher system working, they'd be more willing to support government-funded vouchers.

One of the curious aspects of the private voucher movement is that many programs are in business to go out of business. Several program directors would like government voucher programs to eliminate the need for private vouchers. But others are concerned about the possible restrictions imposed on government vouchers, and some even suggest that private vouchers could eliminate the need for government funding of education entirely.

Regardless of funders' motives, complete freedom of school choice is a major factor for the popularity of the CEO program and other private voucher programs among parents. Milwaukee's private voucher program, Parents Advancing Values in Education, is in direct competition with a government-funded voucher program. PAVE received four times the number of applications as the government program and provided more than three times the number of scholarships for the 1993–94 school year–even though PAVE covers only half of the private school's tuition and the government program pays full tuition and transportation costs.

Gonzalez says that the impact on her children has been dramatic and immediate, especially with Rebecca, her youngest child. Rebecca is now an honors student, and is eager to go to school. And Gonzalez is eager to send her there. "It gives me real peace of mind to know that my children are in a good environment with people who care, she says.