in Cleveland - Temperatures are creeping into the 70s on this early spring day, but Bert Holt, director of Cleveland's groundbreaking school vouchers program, is talking about snowballs. "That's the way of it," she smiles engagingly. "It doesn't take much to make a change in people's lives. You give these families just a little bit of hope, a little bit of encouragement, and you see lives turned around. The children-and the parents." Can simple school vouchers-tax-supported scholarships, offered to parents dissatisfied with public schools-do all that? Anne Ford believes they can. "One thing I knew, no matter what, was that my daughter Ashleigh is a bright girl with lots of potential," says Miss Ford, a 25-year-old single mother who grew up in Cleveland's inner city. "There was something very wrong when she was coming home, saying, 'I hate school' and crying every day. I knew I had to get her out of that public school." Cleveland's three-year-old vouchers pilot program allowed her to do just that-and enroll 8-year-old Ashleigh in the Archbishop James P. Lyke Elementary School. "The change is incredible," Miss Ford smiles broadly. "She reads to me now and loves going to school. And when she gets home, the first thing she does is gets her 5-year-old brother and plays school with him. And she was named student of the month!" There's something more in Miss Ford's smile-something more than parental pride. There's a glint of metal that shows success is indeed snowballing. Braces aren't easy at any age, and in one's 20s and later, they can be particularly painful. But for Miss Ford, that's just part of working to make life better for herself and her family. So is her new job, data entry for a temp agency. "I expect big things out of both my kids," she says, still smiling. So does Mrs. Holt, who came out of retirement to lead the Cleveland effort. She notes the stormy beginning, but emphasizes "the bottom line is that parents are happy, and kids are learning." Though she finds herself in an administrative position, Bert Holt is a teacher at heart, and she outlines the lessons other school-choice proponents can learn from her trials and errors. "You're going to take heat-but that's okay for me, because I'm trained to take it-for example, you're going to be accused of betraying the public schools," she says. "But it's important that you don't match destructive rhetoric with destructive rhetoric. It's important that school choice be advanced in a sophisticated way." In many ways, Cleveland's is a model effort. It began in 1996 with solid support from the state's governor, Republican George Voinovich, and the deep pockets of conservative businessman David Brennan, who started two schools to accept voucher students. The legislation was carefully written with court challenges in mind. Another factor in the success was the decision to combine the voucher program with a tutoring program for public-school children-this helped answer charges that voucher proponents are anti-public schools. David Zanotti, who heads the Ohio Roundtable, a public policy group, says picking Bert Holt to lead the effort was a providential decision. She personally led Cleveland's desegregation, beginning in 1978, and has an unassailable resumé. "Desegration was hard, but it was the right thing to do," she says. "And this is also hard, but it's also the right thing to do. More than anything else, this will change urban education for the better. And that makes it worth doing." But missteps occurred along the way. "Oh, the taxis," she says, covering her face and laughing. "The taxis." To be fair to Mrs. Holt, the taxis weren't really the voucher program's mistake. The debacle, which forced the program to spend $1.4 million on taxis to get voucher students to their new schools, was the fault of the state legislature. When the pilot program was set up, legislators decided to have the state education agency run it, and to require the Cleveland public-school system to provide bus service. Neither agency can be said to be warm to the idea of school vouchers. Mrs. Holt learned just two weeks before classes began in that first year, 1996-97, that the school system had neglected to establish bus routes for voucher students. The state's solution-and this was out of Mrs. Holt's hands-was to pay taxicabs to take the kids to school, rather than set up the required bus routes. Whether it was intentional or no, this was a public relations disaster for the vouchers program. The lesson, Mrs. Holt says, is "Don't give the public school system power over something it is inherently hostile to." The state auditor's office also issued a negative report: It criticized not only the taxi expenditures but the efficiency of Mrs. Holt's office. The office was not keeping good records, the report chided, and it questioned whether all students had proper documentation. But the report had a curious effect, Mrs. Holt reports: "I became an underdog. And Americans love an underdog." The report actually showed the efficiency of Mrs. Holt's office: three people-her entire staff-running a program for 5,000 students. The charge of "problems with documentation" betrayed an arrogant ignorance of inner-city life. The state auditor's office wanted driver's licenses and phone bills for proof of residency, but poor parents are less likely to be able to provide either. "I have parents in prison who have applied," Mrs. Holt says. "I have single mothers living with their own parents, who don't have a single thing in their own names. So when the best they could produce was a Social Security check mailed to them at a certain address, then yes, I accepted that as adequate proof." But school-choice efforts now have Mrs. Holt's hard-won success to point to:
- Vouchers have proven extremely popular with inner-city, poor, and minority parents. "The conventional wisdom of the last 20 years, among educators, was that these are the parents who don't care about their kids," Mrs. Holt says. "The conventional wisdom is wrong."
- Far more students are applying for scholarships than the pilot program can accept. More than 17,500 families have applied for the 3,500 slots available for the coming school year.
- On any given school day, 93 percent of the voucher students are at school. At the same time, more than a quarter of Cleveland public school students are absent.
- The cost of educating a voucher student is $2,500. The amount spent by the Cleveland public school system to educate one of its students is $10,569. And for its money, Cleveland can boast a graduation rate of only 40 percent, and a dropout rate of 10 percent annually.
- A study performed by the Harvard Program on Education and Governance in 1997 showed that Cleveland's voucher students are improving dramatically in academics. Researchers also found that parents and children were much happier with their schools' safety and discipline than were public-school parents and children. (Another study, from Indiana University and funded by the state, found little difference between voucher students and those in public schools. Both sides claim the other's studies are biased.) None of the arguments against vouchers is new: The cry that vouchers created an unconstitutional support of religion has long been heard. Most (75 percent) of the kids in the Cleveland program do attend Catholic schools-though two schools, the Hope Academies, were set up as specifically nonsectarian voucher schools. But again, opponents of vouchers take a big risk when beating up on the Catholic schools. Parochial schools have a long record of doing a better job of educating kids than the public schools in the inner cities. And looking too closely for a popish plot makes vouchers opponents appear mean. "Hope Central Academy doesn't espouse a religion," the Toledo Blade reported darkly. "But it has many of the trappings of a parochial school: uniforms for students, parents who are required to be actively involved in their children's education, and teachers who are paid as little as half of that paid to public school teachers." A more politically effective argument is that vouchers siphon money away from needy public schools. But in the end, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, "the 'it just can't get any worse' argument proved compelling." What the vouchers opponents cannot do is defend public schools. "I know the public schools here," says Anne Ford, who graduated from an inner-city Cleveland high school. "And that's exactly why I wanted my children in this private school. When I was in high school, and my grades started dropping, no one noticed. I had a math teacher who would give an assignment and then sleep through the rest of class, and an English teacher who was always out of the classroom. What I didn't want for my children was to grow up in that environment. I wanted better for them."