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Numbers crunch

"Numbers crunch" Continued...

Issue: "The Purge," Sept. 12, 2009

Another boy wandered away from his public school for 20 minutes. His parents were so desperate to move to a better school district that they put their house up for sale, then took out a home equity loan and rented a house in another district. Teachers strapped one autistic girl into a chair when her aide was gone, and let another autistic boy nap and watch Monty Python movies all day. Classmates sexually harassed an autistic girl on the playground.

Dina Phipps said her son "would come home every day worse than when I dropped him off." With the help of voucher money, she started a private school called Fathers Heart Christian School with Brendan and Susan Fay, a couple whose public-schooled daughter came home at the end of the year with a portfolio of scribbles and blank pages. When Susan Fay tried to attend school with her daughter to help her, the public school said she was not welcome to do so.

Terri Christiansen said of her daughter, Ashley Thomas: "She cried every day before school. She cried every day after school. She blamed everything wrong in her life on the school. She hated her school. She used to ask me every day why I made her go to school. The question tore me apart inside."

"I will not put her back in public school," Christiansen told the court. "I would rather chew my right arm off." The families who attend Ascend echo the sentiment, adding that they can't attend without aid.

Despite their pleas, the Arizona Supreme Court overturned the voucher program last March. The parents and lawyers clamored to rescue the program, and in May, Gov. Jan Brewer called a special session of the state legislature. It quickly converted the voucher program into a tax-credit program-of the kind that has so far survived legal assault in Arizona (although those battles are far from over, too).

But in states that lack tax-credit programs or voucher programs, schools are struggling as the economy leads parents and donors to cut back. In Covina, Calif., the 40-year-old Sonrise Christian Schools has shrunk from 950 students and three campuses at its peak to 450 students and one campus today. The school charges around $5,300-less than it actually takes to educate the kids-and it's always covered the extra $500 needed with fundraising, which has declined with enrollment.

On the other side of the country, the city of Baltimore will probably tear down New Psalmist Christian School and build modular homes in its place. The school started 21 years ago with 50 students, climbed to 150 students almost a decade ago, and then plummeted to 70 last year. The church attempted a fundraising campaign, but it fizzled.

Congress has not reauthorized the Washington, D.C., voucher program, despite the support of a majority of the D.C. City Council. In Washington, D.C., the private schools that took the voucher money will be combining grades, cutting staff, and increasing class size to cope with the loss of enrollment. Most schools didn't charge any more than the $1,700 scholarship, said ACSI staff, so now those schools will have to raise funds to meet the deficit.

So are vouchers dead? In The Washington Monthly, Greg Anrig claimed that vouchers are an "idea whose time has gone" and that conservatives are abandoning their support. Matthew Ladner, vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute, said yes, the private-school choice movement has "entered a difficult period." But although some people would like to "throw the dirt on the box" and pretend vouchers are dead, he said, "The truth is we're not dead and we're not going away."

For instance, some point to recent voucher reforms in Milwaukee as a setback for vouchers. But Howard Fuller, a venerable school choice advocate and chair of the board of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said the regulations in Milwaukee were actually a step forward. (The new rules set a higher bar for new schools to participate in the program, require teachers to have a bachelor's degree, and require students to take a "quality test.") Due to some embarrassing reports of voucher schools, he now supports limited voucher regulations and said the regulations achieved a major victory: garnering support from black Democrats.

Fuller said he solicited the support of state Sen. Lena Taylor, once a vocal choice opponent: "We both had to figure out, can we trust each other? People on her side saying, 'Don't trust Howard!' People on my side saying 'Don't trust Lena!'" Over 14 weeks, he talked to Taylor twice a day and went through 24 drafts of the bill with her, met with the other black legislators individually, and then brought six of the city's black Democratic leaders to meet at his house-a first, since the voucher program has never had the support of the black Democratic caucus in Milwaukee. Some disputed his strategy, but Fuller says, "It was only that support that enabled this program to survive much more draconian kinds of measures."

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