Virtual Vouchers?

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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.

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Shaila Dewan