WHEN state Sens. Anthony Williams and Jeffrey Piccola introduced a bill to allow parents whose children attend the city's worst schools in the poorest neighborhoods to apply state funding to tuition at private schools, I was dead-set against it.
At first glance, the voucher concept sends the message that we're giving up on public education when our goal should be to make public schools better. Why take money from a shaky school budget that could have a half-billion-dollar deficit to help fund private-school educations as proposed in the Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act?
The answer I've reluctantly come to: One-size-fits-all education doesn't work for every student, and our public schools don't have the capacity to educate every child well.
Plus, quiet as it's kept, there's already a voucher program in place for some of the district's more challenging students. Is it fair to offer better schools to problem children and not those who strive to excel, or at least get educated?
For one, the Catholic Archdiocese already educates many who might very well fall through the cracks if left in traditional public schools.
Under the Williams/Piccola bill, which goes into Senate Education Committee hearings tomorrow, poor parents with an income cap of $28,665 in a family of four whose children are in failing schools would qualify to receive vouchers worth up to $9,000 per child to use at the private schools of their choice. Private tuitions range any where from $6,750 (Bishop McDevitt) to nearly $25,000 (at the city's more elite Quaker schools) - and that's before books and supplies.
Is it dreaming to think that private schools that require rigorous entrance applications and are very difficult to get into (even for students whose parents pay full tuition) would accept some of these students?
And how would the parents of voucher kids subsidize the balance of those expensive tuitions? It's fairly obvious that Catholic schools, many of which have been folding across the country, would benefit the most from a voucher program.
But that's not all bad, as I found out with my own son, who out of my five children received one of those "special" private-school educations in a Catholic school.
Although I'm a strong advocate for the magnet/charter-school model, it doesn't work for every child. Although I was at one time opposed to a parochial education, it was the right path for my son because I'm certain that he would have checked out on his education had he stayed in the neighborhood school that he hated and where he was hell-bent on failure.
Although he tested well on basic intelligence, he consistently underperformed, even with plenty of parental input. By the end of elementary school, although his standardized test scores indicated he could have been Central High material, his poor grades put him in the neighborhood schools, like Germantown High.
He began cutting school and getting into trouble.
But I was determined that he'd at the very least graduate on time. After my third visit to Truancy and then Family Court, I asked the judge to order him to De la Salle in Town, a private Catholic school run by the Saint Gabriel's System. (Yes, a reform school!)
I signed papers to transfer his state school funding to pay his tuition there. De la Salle offered small classes (usually 10 kids per class), longer learning hours and creative senior work projects with term papers and oral presentations.
Watching my son's presentation was one of my proudest moments in my children's education and to this day, nearly seven years later, I still believe that sending him to that school was one of my better parenting decisions that may very well have saved him from dropping out.
There are many others like him who also deserve an educational environment that will help them graduate from high school on time.
But problem students aren't the only ones who deserve a break from some of the city's troubled schools.
Yes, our children deserve good public schools. But we are far from there right now. Without school choice, many kids with potential will fall through the cracks if they can't pursue better educational options.