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Los Angeles Daily News

June 1, 2003

Options to Failing Schools
By Michael Warder*

Hoover Elementary of the Santa Ana Unified School District is arguably the worst elementary school in all of Orange County. Its most recent Academic Performance Index (API) test put it in the lowest ten percent of the schools in the state. When compared to schools of similar socio-economic status, it finished in the lowest 10% of those schools. Of the 385 public elementary schools in Orange County, no other one can claim that distinction.

But in Santa Ana’s 35 elementary schools, 17 of them finished in the lowest 10% in the state! The only other Orange County city that in anyway compares with Santa Ana’s deplorable record is Anaheim. Of its 23 elementary schools, four finished in the lowest 10%.

Without achieving proficiency in these early grades, these children will fall increasingly behind. This failure to educate in the crucial K-6 grades consigns these children to an unproductive life at best, and all to often, to a life involving crime. Only 5% of second and third graders at Hoover are "proficient" in English, while for the Santa Ana school district as a whole the figures are only at 9% for these grades.

My respect for the administrators and teachers who faithfully do their job each day at Hoover and the other schools like it is enormous. My heart goes out to the parents who feel trapped and hopeless as they are forced to send their very young children to crowded, failing schools. They lack other options in these crucial formative years of education.

In that same city of Santa Ana there are 18 private elementary schools, most of which have classroom space and a proven record of academic achievement. While these schools charge tuition, they are not for the elite. Many, if not most, of the children who attend them qualify for the federal lunch program. So, a family of four might make $35,000 a year and pay tuition of $2,900 for the first child and a discounted amount or the second child. How can they do that? They sacrifice.

I know because the Southern California Children’s Scholarship Fund, where I serve as Executive Director, has 33 children in Orange County that participate in our partial tuition scholarship program that gives the parents of these children an option. With a little help from us, they send their children to the private school of their choice. The average family income for those participating is $25,533, while the average K-8 tuition is $2,900 and our average scholarship is $1,424. The schools include a broad array of religions and approaches. Half the children attend Catholic schools, while the rest attend secular schools and a variety of religious schools. There is a wide body of scholarship that shows that such private schools, even when controlling for demographics, do a better job at educating. This is especially the case when compared to the worst public schools.

While it is not the ultimate solution, it would be beneficial to families whose children are consigned to terrible schools to have an opportunity for their children to attend private schools. At the minimum, it would relieve the overcrowding of the public schools.

Private philanthropy could help. In Los Angeles our organization provides partial tuition scholarships for 2,426 children that attend 374 schools. We would like to do more in Orange County and we offer matching grants to philanthropic partners for that purpose. There are thousands of children on our waiting lists seeking a chance to attend the 350 private schools of Orange County.

To stimulate more philanthropy, California might look to what other states have done. Pennsylvania and Florida, for example, allow businesses to take a tax credit for money they contribute that give low-income children a chance to have partial tuition scholarships. The net income effect on the state budget is positive, because the cost of sending a child in this manner to private school is much lower than the per pupil cost of sending a child to public schools.

In California such tax credits could be could be targeted to economically depressed areas, or to areas where there is severe overcrowding in the public schools. Such a program of educational philanthropy would allow low-income families to take advantage of the space and teachers available in the private schools that are now not being fully utilized. For those children stuck in the "worst of the worst" schools, it would provide some families an option that would give hope for the future.

*Mr. Warder is Executive Director of the Southern California Children’s Scholarship Fund and can be reached at mwarder@lacsf.org.

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