The war over vouchers

As home to one of the largest school voucher programs in the nation, Cleveland is ground zero in the battle.

Published May 26, 2000 6:00PM (EDT)

Under the cross, on a small table in the middle of St. Vitus Elementary School's main hallway, sits a display: a crown of thorns and two large nails which look more like railroad spikes.

These are trappings of Catholic worship, not the sort of thing you usually find in, say, a Baptist church or school. But the symbols of Catholicism don't particularly bother Janie Hays, a black, single mother who sends her daughter, Jasmine, to St. Vitus courtesy of a voucher. "We're Baptists," says Hays. But she doesn't mind that the school is Catholic because "if you think about it, there's only one God."

St. Vitus used to be a white ethnic enclave, an inner-city parish for the Slovenians who worked in the steel mills. Now, half its students are black.

This is what the school voucher program looks like in Cleveland. Catholic schools formerly devoted to serving their white, working-class communities are now conspicuously integrated by African-American Protestants. Same crucifixes, similar curriculum, changing clientele. Of the 235 students here, only about 70 are Catholic.

The voucher program was St. Vitus' salvation. A few years back, the elementary school was set to close, the victim of Cleveland's changing demographics. Whites were forsaking the old neighborhood for suburbia. Enrollment withered to 130 students. But the taxpayer-funded voucher program, which began in 1995, made it possible for low-income families to send their sons and daughters to private and parochial schools. The vouchers are worth up to $2,250 per pupil, more than enough to pay the $1,900 tuition at St. Vitus. In effect, it's a government subsidy that sustains the Catholic school.

"We're a regular U.N.," smiles Jeanette Polomsky, the round-faced, soft-spoken St. Vitus principal. "Our children learn together, play together and pray together."

Polomsky is not a nun, but she's a lifer. The oldest of six children, she graduated from St. Vitus along with all her brothers and sisters. Like her bishop, she's committed to the "church in the city" regardless of what racial group now dominates the neighborhood.

These days at St. Vitus there are a few Hispanics and Asians, but what's most obvious is the checkerboard pattern of white and black kids in each classroom. Stocky white boys with crewcuts and last names like Djurovic share rows of old-fashioned school desks with black kids who look like they belong in a gospel choir. They are all dressed neatly in variations of the Catholic common denominator: the school uniform.

That's the deal the Catholic schools make with urban black kids: We welcome you and your vouchers, we will be an anchor in your economically ravaged neighborhood, but you must play by our rules. "You can't get a whole lot of teaching done if the room is in chaos," Polomsky stresses. "We want our children to behave appropriately and to have some personal discipline. We try to teach them that they are responsible for what they do, and that if you make good choices there are good consequences that come to you. If you make poor choices, then the consequences might not be so pleasant."

Polomsky says this sweetly, with almost beatific grace, but you still get the message: Screw up badly and we'll expel you -- fast. It's something a lot of public school principals would love to do with deeply troubled, disruptive kids but can't, at least not as easily.

Hays, who works as a computer operator for the police department, appreciates the safety and structure St. Vitus provides. The voucher program enables Hays to send her daughter, Jasmine, to a school that's strict, old-fashioned and assigns homework every night.

But as Polomsky is quick to admit, St. Vitus is "not a little patch of paradise." Even with the voucher money, it's a financially strapped, struggling school with woefully underpaid teachers and no frills. The starting salary is less than $18,000 a year.

"Teachers could easily make an additional $10,000 just by signing on in a public school," says Polomsky. "This is a personal choice [our teachers] make. It's a commitment to the school, the Catholic faith, and to sharing that faith and education with the children."

Jasmine is faring well at St. Vitus, but she may not be able to stay. Last year, a federal judge, Solomon Oliver, declared the entire Cleveland voucher program unconstitutional -- a violation of the First Amendment's separation of church and state. The judge noted that 96 percent of the nearly 4,000 voucher students attend parochial schools and concluded that this amounted to "government-sponsored religious indoctrination."

There are African-American parents who agree with Oliver, although his ruling sparked a firestorm of criticism and the judge agreed to allow the voucher program to continue while the case is on appeal. Ultimately, the Supreme Court will probably determine the fate of the Cleveland plan.

Kelvin Woodford, a powerfully built, handsome man who splices cable for the Cleveland power company, removed his daughters from Catholic school because "I felt to a point it is an indoctrination." Woodford believes "you are taught with blinders" in religious schools. "A lot of people are trained and not truly educated."

He prefers the rough and tumble of public schools combined with strong parental involvement in his kids' education. Woodford, for example, requires his children to do weekly book reports for him.

But Fannie Lewis, an African-American grandmother and city council member who represents Ward 7, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Cleveland, says she just can't understand why a black parent could be against vouchers. "Using this church and state thing, I mean, that's nothing but a cop out," fumes Lewis. "People send their children to Catholic schools because they're looking for a better education, they're looking for discipline, they're not looking for no religion."

A maverick Democrat, Lewis helped initiate the voucher program to help black parents who are desperate to escape a failing inner-city school system. "It's like a burning house," explains Lewis. "What do you do? Let the house burn down and kill everybody or go in there and save who you can? That's what the voucher is about."

Outside of Cleveland and Milwaukee, publicly funded voucher programs barely exist. And the Supreme Court may yet declare them unconstitutional.

But vouchers exist in Cleveland because the public school system fell apart under incredible strain. As Cleveland's once mighty industrial economy stagnated and whites fled the Rust Belt city, the schools deteriorated. By 1995, when vouchers were introduced, 40 percent of Cleveland's nearly half-million people were living below the poverty line. Voters were unable or unwilling to pass a school levy, and the Cleveland public schools were $150 million in debt. School buildings were literally crumbling.

"I remember when the Browns [the NFL team] left town, there was all this hoopla and the whole city's in an uproar," recalls Richard DeColibus, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union. "The very same weekend that happened, one of the roofs in our elementary buildings collapsed, just fell right in. If the kids would have been there, you would have had 20, 30 kids killed. Nobody cared."

Violence in the schools also terrified parents and teachers. Zora Johnson is a mother of six with a bright smile and an uncanny resemblance to Ronnie Spector, lead singer of the mid-'60s "bad girl" group, the Ronettes. She is a dedicated preschool teacher in the Cleveland public schools and a union activist.

But in 1994 a fight erupted at her daughter's middle school, someone pulled a knife, and her daughter intervened to try to save a friend's life, only to have him bleed to death in her arms. Johnson immediately transferred her daughter to a Catholic school. "There's no way I was going to allow her to remain in the school system," shivers Johnson. "I was afraid she was going to get hurt."

The stark reality is that in Cleveland the only real alternative to public school is Catholic school. No one else has the institutional network in the inner city. No one else manages to educate kids on less than $2,250 a year. Proponents of vouchers argued that new private schools would spring up to educate voucher students. But it hasn't really worked out that way. The economics are daunting. And sometimes the temptation to take the money and run is too strong.

LaRuth Jackson, a single mother who lives in the projects, sent her first-grader, Jayve'ante, to a new school aimed at black voucher kids, the Islamic Academy School of Arts and Sciences. "What got me was the karate," recalls Jackson. "They had it every week and I met the instructor and he was nice, you know what I'm saying?"

But the school's promises proved hollow. Extracurricular activities vanished. It turns out that the teachers were not required to have credentials and one was reported to be an ex-con who had been jailed for murder. The founders of the school left town, owing more than $70,000 which they had collected from the state of Ohio for students who never actually attended class. A group of pro-voucher businessmen paid off the debt to avoid further embarrassment to the voucher program.

Jackson is bitter about her experience with vouchers and angry that her son wasted a year of schooling. "They do that with the black society," says Jackson. "They give you a voucher program and then everybody think, 'Oh, private school, better education.' But sometimes it might not be. It's all about the school."

One of the great controversies surrounding voucher students is whether their academic performance improves, even in the better-run schools. The results are mixed and inconclusive. Even an outspoken voucher advocate like Paul Peterson, a Harvard professor who has studied the Cleveland program, claims only modest improvements. "On test score data, you'd have to say the gains are fairly clear in math," Peterson concludes. "The gains in reading are less clear, more marginal."

What studies do confirm is that the parents of voucher students feel better. "I would say the results on parent satisfaction are overwhelmingly conclusive," says Peterson. "If parents are given a choice, they're very happy. They're much happier with their private schools."

Tammy Guido is definitely one of those happy parents. She views vouchers as a life preserver. A poor, white mother of three boys, she said applying for and receiving a voucher was like winning the lottery. And like other non-Catholic parents I interviewed, she has no objection to the mandatory weekly Mass and regular instruction in Catholicism.

"I am Lutheran," notes Guido. "Lutheran and Catholic is basically the same." That's not exactly the way Martin Luther saw it, but the ecumenical spirit is definitely alive and well among black and white voucher parents in Cleveland.

"I just feel any time you take public money and use it for private institutions, it's wrong," argues Woodford, and many agree that the $11 million a year it costs to run the Cleveland voucher plan is money better spent on improving public schools. Educators who oppose vouchers worry about the kids left behind in failing public schools after the voucher kids have bailed out.

"What about the kids who can't find a seat in that other school that presumably is a better school, what about them?" asks Rudy Crew, who was chancellor of the New York City public schools until the other Rudy, Mayor Giuliani, dismissed him last year after Crew refused to implement a pilot voucher program.

"What kind of materials and supplies and laboratory equipment and so forth will the kids in that school have?" Crew asks. "What are you going to do? Are you going to just simply say, 'Well, we've gotten a third of your kids out of here, and now the two-thirds of you that are remaining, basically don't need this?' That's absurd. Not only is it absurd, it's insidious."

Lewis and her allies don't want to abandon kids in deplorable public schools. But she refuses to wait any longer for politicians and educators to improve a system that has been awful for a very long time.

It's difficult to argue with Lewis' hard-headed pragmatism. I asked Vice President Al Gore, who opposes vouchers, what he would say to a black mother like Hays who loves the voucher program. Would he tell her, Just say no?

Gore declined to comment on the specifics of the Cleveland case, citing the court challenges. But he said emphatically, "I don't think that we can tell any parent in this country that they ought to keep their children in a failing school for one more day." Gore then described his solution: "That's why I have proposed shutting down every failing school, and reopening it with a new principal, with full peer review of all teachers, new resources and a new school plan to make that school a success."

In the education world, that's known as "reconstitution" and it's controversial, especially among some teachers and school administrators. It's certainly not the usual talk one hears from Democrats. But Gore correctly calls the terrible state of poor, urban schools "a national emergency," and he knows that if he can't offer vouchers, he's got to come up with some radical plan -- what he constantly calls "revolutionary improvements."

Part of that plan is a huge commitment to spending more federal money on public education -- $115 billion over the next decade on "universal" preschool, as well as elementary through high school. That's the incentive. The new plan also threatens to close failing schools.

"Look at what Governor Hunt does in North Carolina," Gore suggested. "He had 15 failing schools. Shut them down, brought in a new team for each one of them with a new plan and new resources, and now 13 of those 15 schools are in the top rank of high-achieving schools in the state."

Texas Gov. George W. Bush has his own, quite radical plan to deal with the worst schools. He's proposing taking federal money away from failing schools and giving it directly to parents to spend as they see fit on their children's education. In effect, it's a national voucher plan, although he's nervous about using the controversial "v" word.

Ironically, as governor of Texas, Bush declined to promote vouchers, thereby alienating some Christian conservatives who finance their own voucher program in San Antonio. But now that Bush is the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party, he has adopted the party's penchant for vouchers.

In an interview for our "Frontline" documentary, Bush said he would tap the biggest federal education program, Title I, nearly $8 billion a year, which is given to schools with low-income students: "As opposed to subsidizing failure, we ought to free the parent to make a different choice."

Gore attacks Bush for implying that the Title I money -- anywhere from $500 to $1,500 per student -- would be enough to pay tuition at a private school. "That's a fraudulent claim," Gore charges, and he's right. A Cleveland voucher is worth up to $2,250 and that's barely enough to cover a modest Catholic school tuition.

But Bush doesn't always insist that the Title I voucher would pay for a private or Catholic school. He told "Frontline:" "It could be [another] public school. It could be a charter school. It could be a tutorial. It could be anything other than the status quo."

Chester Finn, a sometime advisor to Bush who was President Reagan's assistant secretary of education, readily admits that each parent would get a voucher worth no more than "six or eight or nine hundred dollars" if the Title I money is divided up. Finn says it could be spent on "an after-school program" or "something over the Internet."

Such a modest amount of money may not have the political appeal Bush seeks. But ironically, one of the architects and early implementers of the Title I program, Michael Kirst, a Democrat and Stanford education professor, agrees that Title I has outlived its usefulness and should be disbursed to parents of poor children.

Kirst knows the money won't pay for much more than some tutoring, but he says that's better than nothing. Kirst believes there is a genuine crisis in school systems like Oakland, which he has studied for Mayor Jerry Brown, and desperate times demand new experiments. "The Oakland schools are so bad, I wouldn't send a juvenile delinquent to one," says Kirst.

That sort of brash statement has resonance in a city like Cleveland, where people are fed up enough with the schools to speak their minds. Teacher union president Richard DeColibus says working conditions in the public schools are still so bad that it's very hard to retain good teachers. "We hired 500 teachers last year, 140 of 'em are already gone." The biggest problems, he says, are still discipline and overcrowding in the classroom, especially in middle schools."

Lewis is savvy enough to know you can't blame everything on the schools. She readily recites a litany of urban woes, stressing how many kids have absent parents.

"Do you know what it's like to grow up without either one of your parents?" she asks. "Those youngsters when they go to school, they got to fight. They just mad. You got youngsters in the juvenile system that are hard and cold now because they're not getting any love. Nobody cares about them."

But Lewis refuses to let schools off the hook. "We need to keep our children busy," she tells me. "They ought to go to school year round. Six days a week." If not, she fears another generation of black urban youth will be lost.

"Without an education, how you gonna get a job?" she shouts. "The less education you got, the less money you going to make. If you want six figures, you got to have some sense."

She's on a roll now, preaching, but dead serious: "Our youngsters don't just have to compete with kids in Cleveland. They've got to compete globally. And if these youngsters cannot get exposed to a computer, then they're going to be illiterate."

Vouchers are, at the moment, a tiny, almost marginal experiment. In practice, in Cleveland, they certainly represent taxpayer support for religious schools -- it's ridiculous to pretend they don't. And vouchers may indeed siphon money and the most-motivated parents from an already debilitated public school system.

But vouchers represent something very profound -- a desperate cry from the poorest African-Americans in our inner cities that their schools are a mess and no one seems to care.

In the suburbs, no one's talking about vouchers. A short trolley car ride from downtown Cleveland is one of the finest public high schools in America, Shaker Heights, a thoroughly integrated school, half black, half white, committed to excellence with the resources of a solidly upper-middle-class community to support it. They've even got their own planetarium.

Even in Cleveland, there are a few outstanding "alternative" schools -- like the Newton D. Baker Elementary School with an arts-based curriculum that attracts a multiracial student body from all over the city. The test scores are strong and the music, theater and painting have reached some kids who might otherwise have lost interest in school. But Baker is an exception -- the creation of an extraordinarily willful and dedicated principal, Yvonne Aguilera.

For those who lack the resources of a Shaker Heights, or who languish on the waiting lists trying to get into one of the few wonderful alternative schools in Cleveland, the appeal of vouchers will surely grow. It's an appeal that Democrats, teachers unions and civil rights leaders ignore at their own peril.

By Stephen Talbot

Stephen Talbot is a producer for ITVS / Independent Lens, based in San Francisco.

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