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Scholar Program Bears Echoing

January 7, 2006
COMMENTARY By Stan Simpson

The Florida Supreme Court's rejection of a plan to use public dollars for students to attend private schools is yet another sign that it will be a long and contentious time before school vouchers have any meaningful effect on education in America - if they ever do.

Meanwhile, Connecticut may have a solution that is far less divisive.

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez last year established - in partnership with 19 Connecticut private secondary schools - the Hartford Youth Scholars Foundation. The schools, including Loomis Chafee in Windsor, Avon Old Farms in Avon and Miss Porter's School in Farmington, provide four-year scholarships to city students who meet entrance requirements. The foundation, which will soon be hiring a director, raises money for transportation and tutors and other support costs.

Close to $12 million in scholarships have been pledged. This year, 200 Hartford students will be eligible, up from 160 last year.

When it comes to public school options, Connecticut offers magnet and charter schools and an Open Choice program, which provides 1,100 slots in suburban schools for urban students. It's not enough.

Public money should be invested in public education - not private. But there's no denying the near-perfect track record that private schools have of sending students, particularly city kids, to college. There's no better way to escape the cycle of poverty than through a robust education.

The National Center for Education Statistics found in a 2002 study that students from acutely poor environs, like in Hartford, are four times more likely to earn a college degree if they attend a private secondary school.

So, as Perez knows, any plan to increase the percentage of Hartford students graduating from a four-year college is a flawed one if it doesn't include a private school component. The question, of course, is who pays?

"I have never supported vouchers, public dollars going into a private system, that's not what I'm trying to do," Perez said. "What I'm trying to do is make sure all opportunities are open to our kids. And it's important to leverage private dollars to make those opportunities available. It's about opportunities and economic justice for folks."

Programs such as the WALKS Foundation run in Greater Hartford have shown tremendous results. WALKS prepare about 15 minority students a year for the rigors of college. In the 25 years since it started, no one can recall a WALKS student not graduating from a university.

Mark Blake, 45, is an entrepreneur and graduate of Avon Old Farms. The former Hartford resident and WALKS advisory committee member attended Avon Old Farms on a scholarship and later graduated from Stanford.

An unabashed proponent of providing private school alternatives for urban students, Blake said corporations have a stake in funding these foundations - and should be more involved.

"Any human resources person will tell you it's hard to get people to come to Hartford," Blake said. "The folks who are most likely to work in Hartford are those who are from Hartford. And if that pool is not being properly developed it is going to hurt our labor pool in the future."

The Florida ruling stated that the public money-private school set up in the Sunshine State was unconstitutional because it created an "alternative system" not accountable to the state. The court did not specifically address the question of whether it's appropriate for public money to be used for private education. Subtly, though, it sent a message.

Voucher programs exist in some form in six states in the country. Milwaukee launched the first one in 1990; though the government has been resisting efforts to expand it. Florida had the nation's first statewide voucher program.

There will never be consensus about the merits of funneling taxpayers' dollars to private institutions.

But the Hartford Youth Scholars Foundation - and others like it - could spur a new dialogue about the wisdom of generating private cash for promising urban students in struggling schools.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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