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Private School Scholarships Given to Needy

June 15, 1994|JEAN MERL | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

A new foundation created by proponents of school vouchers is offering $2.4 million in private school scholarships for low-income children in Los Angeles and Orange counties, a foundation leader said Tuesday.

Similar to projects operating in about a dozen U.S. cities, the Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation of Southern California will pay half the annual tuition, up to $1,300, for students in kindergarten through eighth grade whose families qualify for the federally subsidized school lunch program.

Scholarships for at least three years will be given on a first-come, first-served basis to youngsters who get accepted to any private or parochial school that is registered with the California Department of Education.

Officials of the Cerritos-based foundation, who will announce details of the program this morning at the Challengers Boys and Girls Club in South-Central Los Angeles, say they expect to include 1,000 youngsters when the program begins in the fall.

Kevin Teasley, foundation spokesman, said the motivation of the foundation's donors does not arise from their support for voucher proposals. Such proposals would provide parents with tax dollars to spend at the schools of their choice; opponents say they would undermine public schools while doing little to improve education.

"This is not about vouchers, not about a political or ideological program," Teasley said. "It's about a couple of businessmen who have concern for the plight of the inner-city families who want to do something about changing their children's learning environment but cannot afford to do so."

Like virtually all its predecessors, the Southern California scholarship program is backed by people active in a nationwide campaign to bring about voucher systems. They contend that public schools will improve if forced to compete with their private counterparts. Also, they say, poor families should have the same opportunities to choose among schools as their well-heeled counterparts.

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The foundation's scholarship fund was provided in equal amounts by two businessmen who also made substantial contributions to Proposition 174, the unsuccessful voucher initiative on last November's state ballot. They also helped underwrite the June 8 primary campaign of Wilbert Smith, a pro-voucher candidate who lost his bid for state superintendent of public instruction.

The businessmen are Larry Smead, head of Cerritos-based SASCO, one of the nation's largest electrical contracting firms, and John Walton of Arkansas, son of the founder of the Wal-Mart discount chain. Both are members of the CEO Foundation's board of directors.

The Southern California program is patterned on Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust, which was founded by J. Patrick Rooney, chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Co. of Indianapolis. The trust pays half the tuition of low-income students in that city who switch to private schools.

Since its founding in 1991, similar programs have sprung up in 12 other cities, including New York, Atlanta, Phoenix, Little Rock, Denver, Austin and San Antonio. Together, they help pay private school tuition for 7,100 students and have waiting lists totaling 5,500, according to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which tracks school choice projects.

The local program has the biggest start-up fund, and Teasley said the foundation plans a fund-raising campaign to reach more of the estimated 580,000 eligible children in Los Angeles County and others in Orange County. (A family of four living in the two-county area with an annual income of less than $27,380 qualifies for the program.)

To receive a scholarship, an eligible child must be accepted at a non-public school in Los Angeles or Orange counties. The family will be required to come up with the other half of the tuition, a factor that makes it unlikely that the very poorest children can use the program without help from the school or other sources.

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