Tuesday, February 16, 1999

Competition might rescue public schools

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Just in case you have any lingering doubts — any at all — that Cincinnati's public schools are desperately in need of reform, just notice how they treat their most faithful customers.

        The annual magnet school sign-up has become a giant scavenger hunt. A game. And you don't get to play if you have to work on Saturdays.

        Parents who want to get their kids into a magnet school cruise the city, trying to scout secret locations where applications will be taken. Some use cell phones to keep in touch with relatives and friends monitoring radio stations for the 7 a.m. announcement.

Signs of life
        Some people, as one parent told The Cincinnati Enquirer's Lew Moores, try to outsmart school administration by checking out buildings with an unusual number of lights, just “looking for signs of life.” A photo in the Jan. 31 edition of the Enquirer shows the line outside Crest Hills Middle School in Roselawn. By the time Elaine Brown arrived at 7:15 a.m., there were about 200 people ahead of her.

        “It's nice to see parental involvement like this,” a spokeswoman for Cincinnati Public Schools said. Standing in lines. Inconvenient hours. This kind of “parental involvement” reminds me of the kind of involvement we used to have with the post office.

The bad old days
        Back in the bad old days, they had us over a barrel. We had to use them if we wanted to get a letter delivered or a package mailed. This was before Fed Ex and UPS. Now we're customers. Now the post office, er, the U.S. Postal Service wants us to choose their “company,” so they lure us with better service and competitive prices.

        We officially abhor monopolies in this country, don't we? Isn't that why Bill Gates has been spending so much time in court? So why would we put all our money on the gigantic public school monopoly?

        Truly I am shocked to be saying this to you. I've always worried that vouchers and charter schools might signal the end of our commitment to public schooling. But businessman Durk Rorie says public education doesn't necessarily mean public schools. “It means improving the education of the public, the entire public.”

        He has donated about $250,000 to a fund to provide $2 million in private school scholarships “so parents who don't have a lot of money still can make choices about their kids' schooling.”

        Mr. Rorie, working with Cincinnati City Councilman Phil Heimlich, raised $1 million, qualifying Greater Cincinnati schoolchildren for matching money from the Children's Scholarship Fund, a $100 million pool donated by Wal-Mart heir John T. Walton and investment whiz Theodore J. Forstman.

        About 500 children from nine counties in the region, including Northern Kentucky and Indiana, will be awarded $1,000 a year for four years. Kids in kindergarten through eighth grade from low-income families are eligible.

        Forms and income eligibility information are available at 1-800-805-KIDS. It takes seven to 10 working days after the call for the application to arrive, and the return card must be postmarked March 31. Scholarships will be chosen in a random drawing on April 17.

        Nobody has to stand in line.

        Giving low-income parents an opportunity to choose private schools will not be the end of public schools. We still have the U.S. Postal Service. It has just gotten better. And if you don't think so, then you can take your business elsewhere.

        “Michael Jordan doesn't shoot his best jumpers when nobody is guarding him,” Mr. Heimlich says. “Wendy's fries get better because of McDonald's.”

        The more parents who have a choice in where their kids can go to school, the better. Competition will make sure magnet school day is not the only game in town.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio and as a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com