• by Zane Chalfant • IDRA Newsletter • September 1999

More than 25 years ago, the Edgewood Independent School District (ISD) began a long battle for equity in school funding. During that struggle, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) was founded by Dr. José A. Cárdenas, former superintendent of Edgewood ISD, to make state-funded support of our public schools work for all children. At the heart of the Edgewood battle was whether or not students should have access to quality neighborhood schools.

Having eventually won improvements in funding-equity and seeing better student performance in recent years, students face a new challenge that seeks to use public money for private school vouchers.

In a speech, IDRA executive director, Dr. María Robledo Montecel, stated, “If the battle to keep more money for privileged children in privileged schools in privileged neighborhoods could not be won on the school finance front, it will now be fought through this thing called vouchers.”

Vouchers are a way for public-paid tax money to be given to parents so they can pay the tuition to send their children to private schools. Vouchers may be used to pay tuition in religious or non-religious private schools. Some of the funds to support such vouchers are taken from tax revenue that would have gone to neighborhood public schools, thus reducing the amount of money and programs available to support the majority of children who remain in public schools. Vouchers hurt public schools by taking away much-needed funds. They jeopardize equity by singling out a select group of children at the expense of all the rest. They threaten to tear down the bond that exists between our communities and our neighborhood public schools as children are dispersed throughout the city to attend private schools outside their neighborhoods.

For San Antonio, the voucher issue came to the forefront in the summer of 1998 when the Children’s Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation offered tuition money for children in Edgewood ISD to go to private schools. In this case, the majority of the tuition money came from one San Antonio businessman and multi-millionaire, James Leininger.

The parents of 600 children sent their children to private schools, and the parents of 12,600 children kept their children in Edgewood schools.

Even though the foundation pays the tuition for children who leave district schools, Edgewood will experience a more than $3 million shortfall in its 1999-00 school year budget due to the loss of state funding for the 600 children who are no longer enrolled there. To Edgewood and many in the community, this represents a return to the days of inadequate and inequitable treatment of our children. It was a message to the Edgewood community that not all children were deserving of quality education, so a few would be chosen and the majority would be disregarded.

While some saw the CEO Foundation’s offer as a generous move, others recognized it as a ploy to use parents to build support in the state legislature for a state-funded pilot program.

As this school year began, the CEO Foundation demonstrated its intention to not seek additional private funding to continue the program. The foundation announced it is cutting off more than 100 children after one year of voucher funding due to a loss of private donations. The foundation did not propose to find new private donors to help the students – who had been recruited with assurances that the foundation would help them until graduation.

A study by the Texas Freedom Network highlights that the people leading private school voucher initiatives are not interested in improving conditions for all children. The study showed that many of the people and legislators who push for vouchers are the same individuals who opposed initiatives to equalize school funding.

Community Defends its Public Schools

IDRA collaborated with the Coalition for Public Schools and the Texas Freedom Network (both based in Austin) to examine the issue and ways to educate communities about it. In August 1998, IDRA requested a meeting with key representatives from several organizations. This was the first meeting of what would become the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Public Education. People such as civic leaders, school board members, leaders of parent organizations, members of religious organizations, school representatives, and interested citizens attended the meeting.

The newly formed coalition gained momentum as new members and organizations joined. By January 1999, the coalition had 30 member organizations and community leaders, with the capability of reaching 35 other supportive organizations and associations with memberships totaling more than 2 million people.

With the new coalition’s single-minded, action-oriented focus, the members found it easy to work together. Meetings focused on “brainstorming” how citizens and parents could be better informed about vouchers. Ideas flowed freely, and the group was quick to identify needed actions.

The coalition grabbed the attention of the community by first sponsoring a pro-public schools and anti-voucher rally at a local public school on March 6. More than 250 parents, teachers, interested citizens, and news media attended. Speakers included parents, students and policy-makers like San Antonio congressman Charlie Gonzalez and state representatives Juan Solis and Art Reyna. The crowd cheered continuously as they spoke about vouchers as an assault on public schools and children.

On March 24, coalition members, including parents, testified before the Texas Senate Education Committee on proposals that threatened to institute voucher test programs in various cities throughout Texas, including San Antonio. It turned out to be an all-day, late night affair, but coalition members made clear that vouchers would be a return to unequal treatment of school children.

Following the senate testimony, weekly meetings of the coalition resumed, and members began planning the next pro-public education activity. It came on April 10 in the form of a letter-writing campaign. Recognizing that they could not compete financially with the mass amount of wealth the voucher proponents had dedicated to promoting vouchers, coalition members elected to provide an opportunity for parents and community members to voice their concerns. Through their local networks and connections with statewide organizations, coalition members organized a mass letter writing campaign.

On the publicized date, volunteers met at a local district’s parent service center to collect letters addressed to state policy-makers. More than 4,000 letters were collected supporting public schools and objecting to the use of public funds for private schools. The activity was coordinated to coincide with a Texas Freedom Network’s anti-voucher rally held in Austin on April 14. Representative Juan Solis graciously accepted his letters on the steps of the capitol while addressing an audience of nearly 300 people.

Coalition members then focused on keeping community attention on vouchers. Time was growing short as voucher measures threatened to appear any day in the state Senate or House of Representatives for consideration. Coalition members turned to the telephone as another way of communicating their concerns. The invitation to participate was spread throughout parent groups, teacher groups, religious groups, and others. While there is no way of calculating how many people actually made calls, the Coalition for Public Schools in Austin (which was also encouraging phone calls) reported that policy-makers were complaining of receiving a flood of calls in opposition to vouchers.

As a result, the young San Antonio Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Public Education was successful in helping others across the state defeat the “money machine’s” voucher initiatives during this legislative session.

Where Does the Coalition Go From Here?

Members of the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Public Education are enjoying their victory for public education, but the threat of vouchers still lurks in the shadows. Jeff Judson, president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (an organization staunchly in favor of private school vouchers and funded in part by Leininger) said, “Voucher advocates will be assessing their approach, looking at their mistakes, figuring out what they did wrong and return next time with a more finely tuned strategy.” The pro-public schools community coalition is already doing the same because the voucher debate will not end with this last session of the state legislature.

Already the playing field has changed. Florida’s state legislature passed a statewide voucher initiative, the first in the country. The Milwaukee City Council is attempting to expand the voucher program there to allow all families, regardless of annual income, to participate. This is a total departure from the touted original intent of helping economically disadvantaged students. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the Cleveland voucher program is unconstitutional, and a federal judge recently issued an injunction stopping the program. Yet voucher proponents are continuing to operate the program pending an appeal.

While the debate over vouchers continues, the coalition will need to watch several events. For one, it is possible a court challenge in Florida will eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court where the chief justices will be forced to make one decision affecting the entire country.

Second, we can expect Texas voucher proponents, those with all the money, to try to influence several state races in an attempt to dislodge Pete Laney as Speaker of the House and other anti-voucher policy-makers and thus receive enough deciding votes to pass a voucher bill.

Voucher proponents may push for measures for a tax credit for families who send their children to private schools and a franchise tax rebate for businesses that donate to private schools. They may be wearing different “clothes,” but these are still voucher programs because they use tax money to pay private school tuition.

What Can the Coalition Do to Stop Vouchers in the Future?

Since the power of the coalition rests with its people and not its money, the coalition will work to expand its network to reach a broader sector of the population. New organizations and individuals are being encouraged to join the coalition, including representatives from additional school districts, religious groups, private schools, minority groups, and businesses.

Additional media relations need to be developed as an outlet for articles and information about vouchers, particularly to keep San Antonians informed about the status of the voucher efforts in Milwaukee and Florida. An e-mail information network needs be developed to inform coalition members and interested citizens of pending legislation or opposition activities. The coalition might consider hosting a statewide voucher conference and invite different coalitions and associations to share their ideas and strategies and to determine how we might all work better together.

The coalition will certainly continue its parent training programs and encourage other school districts and school board members to take a more active role in opposing vouchers. Above all, the coalition needs to maintain a single-minded focus to oppose the use of public money for private schooling.

We owe thanks and appreciation to all of the groups and individuals who came together as the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Public Education. It is truly an organization that made a difference in the fight against vouchers.

Zane Chalfant is the former executive director of the Texas Parent Teachers Association (PTA). Prior to this, he served 21 years as an officer in the US Air Force, was the business manager for an engineering consulting firm, and directed a non-profit organization providing training and job placement assistance to people in the community. He is a member of both the Coalition for Public Schools and the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Public Education. Comments and questions may be directed to IDRA via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 1999 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]