Virtual Vouchers?

Pastor Leon Spivey thinks he knows what black people need: a basic education and some spiritual guidance. Problem is, he says, the black people who most need him can't afford his help. At $240 monthly per pupil, Spivey's Life Ministries Christian Academy is inexpensive by private-school standards, but out of reach of many children in the school's neighborhood, the Fifth Ward. So when Spivey read in May that the Houston Independent School District was looking for private schools to take low-performing students, Spivey thought he had found the way to complete his "divine assignment." Children could go to his school on the district's tab.

Spivey's initial proposal to HISD was rebuffed, so he called HISD board president Laurie Bricker, who was pushing to make the district's so-called Educational Contracting Program work. Bricker told him, he says, that the word "Christian" in the school's name sent up a red flag for the district. (Bricker referred all questions to HISD's press office.) So Spivey went to the courthouse, filed a new name, Fifth Ward Preparatory Academy, switched the names in the proposal and resubmitted it. This time, according to Spivey, the district came to the table.

But Spivey soon found out what he stood to gain from dealing with HISD: in his words, "hell."

For years the district has contracted with schools whose independence from churches is more on paper than in practice; including A.A. McCardell Academy at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church and Mt. Hebron at Mt. Hebron Baptist. One overcrowded school found relief classrooms at a Buddhist temple.

Yet such programs are usually designed for GED classes, special-education students or those at risk of dropping out. In May 1998 the school board decided to expand the Educational Contracting Program to allow low-performing students at low-performing schools to attend private schools with district money.

There were 147 eligible students from the district's eight low-performing schools, but no takers for the program. Not only that, but private schools weren't jumping at the offer. Assistant Superintendent Hilbert Bludau told the Houston Chronicle that four or five schools inquired about the program but decided the money wasn't adequate.

Despite the lack of interest, this year the board expanded the contracting program again, offering it to all first-, second- and third-graders who had failed to meet the district's new promotion standards.

Still, the district had no place to send them. That explains why HISD jumped so readily at Fifth Ward Prep's offer -- it was the only school interested.

Spivey's school became the object of intense scrutiny. District trustees couldn't find an address or phone number for Fifth Ward Prep, since it effectively didn't exist. Life Ministries, which does exist, is not accredited by Texas Education Agency standards. Its Bible-based curriculum and prominent display of Christian admonitions drew fire from the Council of Jewish Women and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Charlotte Coffelt, a former school principal who speaks for the Americans United group, protested that the school's name change was "a shell game."

Some school-watchers and parents perceive the program as, in Coffelt's words, "educational malpractice." The district's offer of "virtual vouchers" to children who simply aren't succeeding academically alarms public-school supporters who think the Educational Contracting Program will leach money and students from public schools. If one school district can contract with a private school, say voucher critics such as Nancy Lomax, leader of Parents for Public Schools, voucher proponents could sidestep their defeat in the Legislature and battle it out in each of Texas's 1,042 school districts. Vouchers would become an issue of local control.

Those who oppose vouchers but support the contracting program, such as board president Bricker, insist there is a difference. Some see Bricker's argument as a technicality. Voucher money goes directly from the state to the parent to the private school; in a contracting program it goes from the state to the district to the private school. However, there is an important distinction: Vouchers can be augmented by parents, while HISD requires contract schools to accept the $3,575 it offers per student as full tuition and fees.

That amount is one reason why voucher opponents may be overstating the threat. The proposed contract with Fifth Ward Prep would cover 25 children in the first year and eventually expand to 100 students. That's infinitesimal for a district as colossal as HISD. And that's if 25 willing students can be found.

Lomax says lack of interest in the program last year proves parents would rather have good public schools than the option to attend private ones. "Everyone deserves to have a public school down the block that they know will provide a decent education."

Practical constraints mean this program will probably not develop into a full-fledged voucher pilot program. However, a central issue is why the district wants to send its youngest children, who are at an age when intervention can be most effective, to an untried school about which little is known. Lomax filed a Freedom of Information request with the district asking for any report, audit, investigation or evaluation of Fifth Ward Prep, its test results, and board or teaching staff credentials. The district could provide nothing on any of those topics.