Taking Charge: How Citizens Can Help Kids when Government Won’t

At the same time that Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D) was announcing plans to appoint a task force to explore different options for providing school choice for parents, a new group was being chartered in Maryland – a Baltimore version of the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation (known as CEO America). Like the original group, the purpose of the non-profit CEO Baltimore will be to offer the city’s low-income parents tuition assistance to send their children to the schools of their choice. Fashioned after the first private voucher program – started in 1991 by J. Patrick Rooney, chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Company in Indianapolis – CEO Baltimore will be the 23rd group to follow Rooney’s lead. To date, there are almost 10,000 children receiving CEO funds.1 (See table 1.)

CEO America is located in Bentonville, Arkansas. It was formed in May, 1994, with a fourfold purpose. First, it serves as the national clearinghouse for information on privately funded voucher programs. Second, it offers and provides support services for each existing program. Third, it also provides matching grants to help develop these programs. Finally, it coordinates the development of all new such programs across the country. CEO America’s activities are descended from a successful program in San Antonio, Texas, funded by James R. Leininger, M.D. Leininger decided that strong action was necessary if educational choice was ever going to become a reality for all Texan school children. Initially, the venture was run by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a state think-tank similar in nature to the Calvert Institute. By 1994, TPPF had concluded that the program had grown beyond what it could handle. So a new entity was established to focus on the national picture: CEO America. The group’s leadership includes as chairman James M. Mansour, who is founder and chairman of National Telecommunications. In addition, CEO America’s board includes: Dr. Leininger; Golden Rule’s Pat Rooney; John T. Walton, a San Diego businessman; Larry Walker, a San Antonio publisher; George Noga, owner of the TransAm Financial Corporation; Thomas Lyles, vice president for Mission City Management in San Antonio; and Robert Auguirre, president of Robert Auguirre Consultants, LLC.

The creation of CEO Baltimore was the result of the efforts of impassioned citizens, eagerly moving forward with creative options to help low-income to lower-middle-income parents and students share the educational opportunities that many middle- and upper-class citizens enjoy merely because of income and where they choose to live. The issue is not about liberalism versus conservatism. It is about justice. It is about the belief that parental responsibility is violated by the present government-controlled system of schooling. Parents have the right and responsibility – and, indeed, are expected – to feed, clothe and house their children, independent of the government. Education is the one area over which they have no control, at least not poor parents. Unlike parents who are financially able to send their children to private or parochial schools when they determine that a change is in order, low-income or lower-middle-income parents are forced to keep their children in a failing system.

The focus of CEO Baltimore, of which I am the executive director, is children. Children are gifts from God. They deserve every opportunity to cultivate their innate talents so that they may be prepared for the future. Maintaining the current educational status quo, with all its built-in resistance to reform, will never offer the potential for success that all parents wish for their children. Moreover, it will not produce citizens capable of contributing to society. Education, properly understood, is one of the most basic requirements for self-sufficiency; but, at a far deeper level, education has more to do with holistic development of character, critical thinking skills, emotional maturity and personhood. In short, true education is about socialization; that is, teaching youths how to function in civil society.

Instead, current policy is essentially to graduate students from high school for little more reason than that they showed up for classes. Academic skills are frequently restricted to test-taking skills, rather than the accumulation of knowledge. Herding children through 12 years of education without offering strong and selfless leadership; failing to demonstrate or expect disciplined work habits; declining to create an environment that values children rather than demeans them – all these contribute to the conditions that lead to failure. This is why demanding that city children attend city schools as they now operate is not acceptable.

We at CEO Baltimore believe that parents should be the primary educators of their children. They deserve the right to choose from among the broadest range of educational alternatives. Only then may they find the most suitable options for their children’s needs. Too much time has been spent on reform without taking seriously the role parents play in a child’s education. As discussed below, there is evidence to suggest that children’s performance increases when parents are attentive to their school work.2 Yet, parents are left powerless before the government monopoly. At CEO Baltimore, we believe that there are many caring and concerned parents, who, if given an opportunity to choose a school for their children, would to a greater extent involve themselves in their children’s lives.

It was not always the case that the public school system in Baltimore was of such poor quality.3 Yet, the actions of the last few decades – the “umbing down” of educational standards to keep students “graduating” – have had dire consequences, possibly irreparable.4 In his latest book, Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do, Laurence Steinberg postulates that the poor achievement of children in today’s schools is largely due to “widespread decline in children’s interest in education and in their motivation to achieve in the classroom; it is a problem of attitude and effort, not ability.”5 He convincingly argues that increasing parental involvement increases performance and engagement in learning. He suggests that schools must begin to require something more from parents than sending their children out the door with lunch in hand.

As the result of his ten-year study, he argues that one of the causes of children’s disengagement from the learning process is parental neglect. The abdication of parental responsibility is certainly not entirely the fault of the public system. However, not to expect more from parents, not to give them more control of their children’s scholastic experiences, implies that the system believes it can educate children without parents.

CEO Baltimore’s primary reason for initiating this new private-voucher plan is to bring the parent back into the equation – by offering support, encouragement and financial assistance. The organization believes all children should have equal access to quality education. We further believe that many parents of inner-city children would desperately like to remove their youngsters from the dangerous, disorderly learning environment of many urban schools, but that they are denied that chance because they are economically disadvantaged.

To help, CEO Baltimore will act as a partner to the low-income, Baltimore City parent by offering to pay 50 percent of the tuition at the non-public school of his or her choice, up to a cap of about $1,200. This figure is not as low as it sounds. In school year 1990-1991, tuition at the average private elementary school was $1,780; at the average private secondary school, $4,995. At Roman Catholic parochial schools, those tuition costs were lower still, respectively, $1,243 and $2,878. By contrast, that same year, average public school costs were $5,177 per elementary student and $6,472 for each secondary student.6 After CEO Baltimore has provided its scholarship funds to a student, the remaining 50 percent must be paid by the parent. This may cause sacrifice for low-income parents. But we know from the evidence of other private-voucher plans across the nation that there are countless parents who choose to make this effort because they want their children to attend safe and academically enriched schools, schools that value their role as parents or guardians. All told, no fewer than 26,498 families participate or are waiting to participate in a CEO program. And that does not include other, non-CEO-affiliated scholarship programs.

CEO Baltimore has been formed for one purpose: to help educate children in a manner that is worthy of their minds and talents. We recognize we shall only ever be able to assist a small percentage of city children. Nonetheless, until such time as government-sanctioned school choice is established in Baltimore, we believe that our efforts will significantly enrich the lives of those children we do reach.

Ms. Duvall is the executive director of CEO Baltimore, which can be reached at (410) 296-8832. CEO America can be reached at (501) 273-6957.

End Notes

[Top] 1. Children’s Educational Fund of America (CEO America), “Private Voucher Programs,” Voucher Voice, Summer 1996, p. 8, chart.

[Top] 2. For extensive discussion of this topic, see Laurence Steinberg, Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do (New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 102.

[Top] 3. If anyone doubts the sad state of Baltimore City’s public schools, he need look no further than the city’s rating in the 1995 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests. Overall, an average of 14.3 percent of city public-school students at all grades passed their MSPAP tests. These are not difficult tests. See Douglas P. Munro, “Public v. Private Schools: A Reality Check on the BCPS,” Calvert Institute Calvert Comment, Vol. I, No. 1, April 4, 1996.

[Top] 4. Many within the public-sector educational establishment seem oblivious to the necessity of reasserting serious scholastic standards. Part of this is due to the politicization of the establishment. In 1989, a subcommittee of the National Council on Education Standards’ English and literature committee was incapable of being more creative than to demand that the term “standard English” be replaced by the more politically correct “privileged dialect.” See Paul Gagnon, “What Should Children Learn?” Atlantic Monthly, December 1995, pp. 65- 78, at 68.

[Top] 5. Steinberg, Beyond the Classroom, p. 184.

[Top] 6. Munro, “Public v. Private Schools.”

Posted in: Education, News Series