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.

Last week HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said the district has "indefinitely postponed" contract negotiations with Fifth Ward Prep "until the district can clear up some outstanding issues."

Leon Spivey is a compact man whose jovial demeanor belies some of the more strident details of his biography. A lifelong resident of the Fifth Ward with a doctorate in education from Texas Southern University, Spivey lost a race for City Council in 1985 as a candidate of the Straight Slate. It targeted councilmembers who supported a measure to protect gays employed by the city from discrimination. In 1987 he was convicted of misdemeanor trespass after a protest at an abortion clinic. At one point Spivey's ministries included a food distribution service, a prison ministry and a halfway house for drug-dependent men. Spivey devotes most of his time now to the nonprofit school, whose barnlike main building was built in 1990 by charitable Quakers.

Spivey is no fan of public education, saying the system was created by people who "stupidly and ignorantly bought into evolution and all that other foolishness." Still, he insists he's willing to abide by any HISD requirements, including removing religious items from display at the school or keeping HISD children in separate buildings. "Math is math," Spivey says. "Ain't no religion in that."

Spivey defends his lack of accreditation. "You have to be a ignoramus to ask a stupid, asinine question like that [about accreditation]. Because all the school district is certified, and they can't educate 'em."

As proof that he can, Spivey offers Stanford Achievement Test scores from last year for 31 Life Ministries students between ages five and 13. He says the rest of his nearly 50 enrollees were too young to test. For those whose scores were provided, all would have met HISD promotion standards, most with flying colors.

Fifth Ward Prep promises small classes and individual attention for students. The question is whether the district is abdicating its education responsibility or fulfilling it with a contract. "We want that for all children in HISD," Lomax says of the small class size, "especially any that are failing or at risk. Why can't the district provide that?"

Trustee Olga Campos, who voted against the contract proposal in September, points out that the district has already allocated funds for children who don't meet the district's stricter promotion standards. "I really hate to experiment with the children," she says.

To former principal Coffelt, the core concern is whether the district wants to focus on improving HISD schools, or divert money from them. "This is a dumping ground," she says. "I don't believe we should be dumping our children in unaccredited schools."

Trustee Jeff Shadwick, a contract program supporter, points out that parents are the ones who would make the decision to send a child to Fifth Ward. The point, he says, is to offer them more choice.

Abbott says HISD Superintendent Rod Paige, who likes to stay ahead of the policy curve, has been out front on providing choice for some time. HISD sponsors several charter schools and allows parents to send their children to any school in the district that has room.

But parents aren't asking for this kind of choice, says Karen Miller, the legislative chair for the Texas Parent-Teacher Association. "There's no compelling public purpose for this program." Rather, opponents see politics behind the push to make contracting work.

The program has echoes of Governor George W. Bush's presidential campaign position supporting government partnering with faith-based agencies. More significant, it's uncannily similar to Bush's recent proposal to transfer Title I federal funding, which usually augments the budgets of schools with disadvantaged children, to private schools if the public schools fail. The competition, Bush says, would spur public schools to do better.

"Wouldn't [Bricker] like for Rod Paige to take credit for these innovative programs?" asks Coffelt.

Coffelt and other voucher opponents are hoping the district will quietly bury plans to contract with Fifth Ward Prep, and the district seems to be considering doing just that.

But if the program does take off, it will be closely monitored by everyone from voucher supporters to guardians of the separation of church and state. If it does provide virtual vouchers, the program might indicate whether it's only wealthy taxpayers who are interested in a break on private-school tuition, or whether there's a real demand among students for the chance to go to a private school.

E-mail Shaila Dewan at [email protected].

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Shaila Dewan