I am the founder of the HOPE Academies in Cleveland. The HOPE Academies were organized to educate scholarship students under the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program. In the 1996-97 academic year, the two HOPE Academies served 345 children. In the 1997-98 academic year, the three schools will serve about 475 children. In the current year, children are in Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th grades, with the intention of adding a grade each year through 8th grade.
The HOPE Academies are the only schools ever formed for the purpose of receiving scholarship children. The average family incomes are under $7,000 per year. Most of our children who have transferred from other schools were in trouble at their prior school. About 10% of our students have special education needs, which we are addressing. The academic results of our students are outstanding. During our first year of operation, the overall percentile of achievement by all students went from the 32nd percentile to the 38th percentile, including special education children. This is particularly noteworthy because these percentiles are for all the students in the nation, not just the demographic groups similar to our student body. The next logical step in testing the merits of a scholarship plan is to extend the plan district-wide. Every student living in the district should be entitled to a scholarship for the use at a school they choose. In Cleveland, virtually all of the empty desks in
existing private schools have been filled under the current pilot program. Two-thousand scholarships were granted last year, three-thousand scholarship this year, and four-thousand scholarships will be granted next year. This annual increase covers the scholarships for the new entering kindergarten children, and adds an additional grade level each year to the school.
We know that choice works. The G.I. Bill is the best example. The top one fourth of our society can afford to send their children to whichever school they choose. Approximately half of those families choose private, parochial, non-sectarian or Christian alternative schools. Which is another way of saying that approximately half of those families still choose the government school. Every testing measurement reaffirms that these choice children are all doing well. I suggest that the availability of choice is the principal reason why. The Cleveland Scholarship Plan is doing nothing more than extending that power of choice to as many children as possible. Over time, the effects will clearly show the advantage of such a system. After our first year of operation, reasonable evidence proves the merit of such a system.
Every objection raised concerning the desirability and effectiveness of a scholarship plan has been answered. This method of funding education works, and the present method does not. As the supply of new schools increases, innovation will also increase. As successful as we are at the HOPE Academies, we recognize that others will have different approaches to educate our children, and the end result will be diverse, customized educational opportunities for each and every child. The current system of government education can never achieve that goal.
The biggest economic hurdle to the establishment of a scholarship plan is the cost of current private school student scholarships. In Cleveland we have addressed this issue by limiting the current private school scholarships to one scholarship out of four. The net savings to the Cleveland Public School District exceeds the net cost of scholarships for both departing public school students and existing private school students.
Congress can play a role in forwarding educational choice. There is proposed legislation which would provide a scholarship for every child in the District. Given the prevailing dismal condition of the D.C. district schools, Congress should pass this legislation and further test the effectiveness of giving parents the ongoing power of choice.
Initially, the demand for alternative schools will be greater than the available supply. But as we are seeing here in Cleveland, existing schools will increase their capacity and new schools will emerge. There is an abundance of physical space in existing churches, former school buildings, apartment complexes, office buildings, and community organizations in Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and every urban center to meet the demand for new schools.
The question before us today remains: Who shall decide for the children? The parents and family members, or the state? I have just recently returned from a trip to Eastern Europe. There the brave souls of the former Communist bloc are now struggling with converting the entire economy to a free enterprise system. They look to America as their model of liberty.
Yet here today, in this very city and across the nation, our children remain trapped in a state controlled education system that members of the former Politburo would still admire. Years ago, President Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall and courageously challenged the Soviets to “tear this wall down.” Eventually, they did and freedom followed.
Here in Ohio we are striving to free our children from a centralized government command and control system. We are seeking to once again elevate the opinion of parents over the opinion of the state bureaucracy. Here we desire to place the interests of the children first.
To all critics we offer one undeniable proof — the lives of the children and parents of the Cleveland Scholarship Plan. One look into their lives will assure you that the American Spirit is still alive and will prevail over any obstacle. This is the power of choice — this is the story of HOPE.
David L. Brennan is the Chairman of the Brennan Industrial Group. He will give an address at Ashland University on April 28, 1998 as a part of the Spring 1998 Major Issues Lecture Series.