School Choice for Inner-City Kids
Golden Rule Insurance Company Confronted the Education System
OCTOBER 01, 1994 by TIMOTHY P. EHRGOTT
Mr. Ehrgott is Executive Director of the Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust, located at 7440 Woodland Drive, Indianapolis, Indiana 46278.
There is a report that the U.S. postmaster general responded to a call for privatizing the postal service by mailing a stern rebuttal to the offending group’s headquarters, a block away in Washington, D.C. The letter arrived eleven days later. We face a similar irony in education. “A Nation at Risk,” a much-cited 1983 report, called for major reform in the way our country educates its children. Eleven years later, the public education establishment has yet to deliver.
In August 1991, a private group in Indianapolis, Indiana, decided to address the education problem by focusing on low-income students trapped in the government-run, inner-city schools. This effort, now emulated in ten other American communities, offers a challenge to those who have put their faith in routine reform efforts around the country.
The Indianapolis program is a voucher system free of government interference, devoid of bureaucracy, and virtually bereft of rules. It’s the Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust of the Golden Rule Insurance Company. It pays one-half a student’s tuition, up to $800, to any legally operating school of the family’s choice in Marion County. The program is open to any student who qualifies for the federal reduced-price lunch program and who resides within the Indianapolis Public Schools district. CHOICE makes no judgments on curriculum or academics. If a child is good enough for the school and the school for the family, CHOICE cuts a check to the school each month on behalf of the student. End of our involvement.
No Tinkering at the Edges
As a business, Golden Rule has a natural interest in improving the quality of education in its community. The company had received several suggestions for action in the education field, including an offer to endow a chair at the alma mater of its chairman, J. Patrick Rooney. And there were plenty of other reform options open to companies: adopt-a-school, legislative reform, donations of computers, teacher awards. However, none of these routes addresses the systemic problems at the core of our education dilemma. Spending resources on tinkering at the edges did not appeal to Pat Rooney and Golden Rule.
Instead, the company looked for a way to confront the system by using something every business faces every day: competition. The educational system would not dramatically alter its operations if Golden Rule had “adopted” a school. But it might if confronted with a loss of its clients!
Many parents in the Indianapolis area already enjoyed school choice. The growth of the surrounding suburban school systems meant that those with the financial means could select one school over another—by moving into its area. Those without the ability to move were left behind in the central city with its declining test scores and rising violence.
That struck Golden Rule as inherently unfair, with young people’s futures being decided by accident of birth. The way to rectify the situation was to give the left-behind families the means to exercise options beyond their reach. Once they could walk away from their schools, then perhaps the system would listen to them.
There is evidence that CHOICE is having an effect. Two months after it started, the city school district announced its intention to develop a limited choice plan of its own, called Select Schools. It was adopted in the fall of 1993, to mixed reviews, but it means parents do enjoy a bit more freedom in deciding their children’s futures.
Competition works, and it leads to good things. It works so well that ten days after CHOICE announced the availability of 500 grants, 750 students were signed up. In spring of 1994, the third year of operation, 1,100 children were enrolled, and more than 800 students were on the waiting list. In addition to the students in Indianapolis, CHOICE-style programs have sprung up in other communities across the country, including a $2.4 million program beginning next fall in Los Angeles.
Opponents of school choice have questioned parents’ commitment, whether they are “qualified” (i.e., smart enough) to make choices, and if they even care. What we have found through CHOICE is that poor families want the same things for their children as other parents: a good education and a promising future.
The families have been telling us at CHOICE how important it is to have two factors present in a school. Values are the first point. The families want to know that what they are teaching the children at home is being reinforced by the school. And, sadly, safety is the second factor. Many of the CHOICE parents did not feel their children were safe in their previous schools. Now they believe they are.
Perhaps the parents understand education better than most of the experts. Without values and without a safe environment, good education cannot occur. 
Privately funded tuition grant programs in the United States
Cities with programs now underway: Cities with programs set to begin 1994-95:
- Albany, New York Dallas, Texas
- Atlanta, Georgia Houston, Texas
- Austin, Texas Los Angeles, California
- Denver, Colorado Midland, Texas
- Detroit/Grand Rapids, Michigan Oakland, California
- Indianapolis, Indiana
- Little Rock, Arkansas
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Phoenix, Arizona
- San Antonio, Texas
- Washington, D.C.
Source: The National Scholarship Center, Washington, D.C.