Recently I went to Milwaukee and Cleveland, the only two cities in the country with publicly funded school voucher programs, to visit four (among the more than 100) schools that have accepted voucher students. School voucher proponents—myself included—have argued that providing tax-funded scholarships for low-income pupils to use in any private or religious school would rescue thousands, perhaps millions, of children presently trapped in failing inner-city public schools and would lead to the creation of thousands of innovative new schools. In addition, competition from voucher-supported schools would challenge the public education system from the outside, forcing it to reconsider its own hidebound ways. That’s the theory: now that these two cities had made it possible, I could hardly wait to see what actually happens in practice.
What I saw was exhilarating. No one who has spent any time at these schools could fail to be impressed by their orderly, energetic atmosphere and solid academic achievement—all the more impressive when compared with the violent, dysfunctional inner-city public schools that were the alternative for these children. Moreover, the schools I saw couldn’t have been more different from one another: they ran the gamut from an evangelical Christian academy and an independent Catholic high school to a secular elementary school with a Hispanic cultural theme and a secular school with a strong focus on computer technology.
What these inspiring schools had in common was that, at their creation, their founders and many of their staff did not qualify as professional educators. They did not have degrees from the education monopoly’s prescribed ed schools or credentials issued by government education boards, and they certainly did not belong to the monopoly system’s teachers’ unions. Yet every one of these outsiders had all they needed to educate and inspire children—a sense of mission, a willingness to work long hours for little pay, and common sense about the discipline and the core knowledge that inner-city children need in order to succeed. Unconstrained by the official school system’s suffocating bureaucratic regulations, they were able to develop an entrepreneurial, problem-solving approach that helped overcome hurdles likely to sink any rule-driven public school.
The education establishment is as frightened by these schools as I was impressed. No wonder.
Look first at the Believers in Christ Christian Academy, which lights up a desolate, predominantly black Milwaukee neighborhood. At this school, everyone arrives very early and stays very late. By 8 am, the children, staff, and many parents have filled the basement auditorium’s plain folding chairs for an assembly that is part gospel-singing prayer meeting and part academic pep rally. Up on the stage, three parents form a makeshift orchestra that accompanies the hymn singing on two pianos and a tambourine, while at the lectern, swaying to the hymns and exhorting the children to work hard in their classrooms that day, is the school’s founder, a tall, attractive, African-American woman named Cheryl Brown. Invoking the scriptures, she reminds the children, all of them black and from the city’s worst neighborhoods, that they were made in God’s image. “No matter what anyone tells you and no matter what messages you hear from society, you can each achieve great things,” she exhorts them. “But you have to work for it. Are you going to work hard in your classes today?” she demands. “Yes!” the children shout back in unison. “No excuses,” she intones again and again.
Cheryl Brown’s school is the teachers’ unions’ worst nightmare. According to the union-led anti-school-choice coalition, the problem with vouchers is that they are likely to cream off the best and brightest kids presently attending inner-city public schools, leaving only the most disadvantaged and academically unprepared children. Yet almost in the same breath, opponents of vouchers contend that those “cream of the crop” children and their parents are too stupid to avoid being victimized by educational charlatans. Dire warnings about “witchcraft” schools, “Farrakhan” schools, and “creationist” schools greedily waiting to get their hands on voucher money have been stock features in the teachers’ union propaganda.
Well, Believers in Christ is a “creationist” school. The people running it believe in the literalness of the Scriptures, and they don’t separate their faith from their role as educators. Bedecking the hallways and every classroom are posters that proclaim such inspirational messages as “I can do all things through Christ” and “God gave me a brain.” Many teachers expound the biblical story of creation in the classroom. Cheryl Brown herself teaches biology, and in that class, she told me, she offers her students a perfectly mainstream scientific account of DNA and RNA, while also telling them: “God created everything; it all began with him. Science can’t contradict that. Science can explain how everything works physically in relation to everything else.” I watched Reginald Johnson, a young African-American with a degree in physics from Xavier University, teach seventh-graders a fairly sophisticated lesson on black holes. Later I asked Johnson, who is an evangelical Christian, whether he also teaches the children the biblical version of creation. “Sure,” he said. “I don’t see it as a conflict. It’s going to make them stronger adults. When they get to college and all through life, they will have to reconcile their faith with science.”
“We absolutely believe in our faith,” Cheryl Brown explains, “but we also believe that there is a body of knowledge that our children must know in order to survive in the real world.” Brown is adamant that if the condition of receiving voucher students were that she had to separate Believers in Christ’s religious teachings from the rest of the school’s educational mission, she would instantly forgo the vouchers. “This is who we are,” she said.
The teachers’ unions believe that giving poor kids tax money to go to Cheryl Brown’s school is a stain on the Republic. Never mind that her kids are learning something, that they might actually stay in school. Never mind too that nothing in the school’s curriculum has been imposed on the parents—unlike the public school parents who have had graphic and inappropriate sex education lessons or texts such as Heather Has Two Mommies inflicted on their children against their will.
Cheryl Brown never recruited any unsuspecting children into her school. Rather, the school was called into existence by the community—by minority parents who felt that the public schools were trashing their most cherished values as well as their children’s futures. Eight years ago, Brown was a director of nursing at Milwaukee County Hospital. At the time, she was also a lay pastor for Believers in Christ, an independent evangelical congregation started as a Bible study group a few years earlier. For two years, Brown had been running a six-week summer school for the children of the congregants and other poor families in the neighborhood. So successful was the summer program—and so dysfunctional were the regular Milwaukee public schools the children would have to return to in the fall—that many parents told Brown that they were determined not to send their children back. They begged her to start a year-round school. She agreed to give it a try. Within a year she had resigned her job at the hospital and was embarked on her new career as an educator.
It was a rocky start. Space wasn’t a problem, because the ministry had already leased an abandoned Catholic school from a nearby parish for a modest rent. But there was almost no money for books or teachers’ salaries. Brown recruited parents as volunteer teachers, and she herself took no salary the first few years, subsisting on savings and offerings from the church. Most of the parents were too poor to pay more than $50 a month in tuition.
“We felt it was our mission, our personal responsibility,” Brown told me. “We just trusted that somehow our needs would be met.” One of the parents explained further: “We stuck it out because we felt our children would escape the violence and lack of religious values” of the Milwaukee public schools. When this parent mentioned religious values, I took her to mean something that went beyond religion, too. She also meant, as I understood her, that the public schools had abandoned the most rudimentary values of them all: the very idea of a shared civility and reverence for higher aspirations that all parents, secular ones included, should be able to endorse.
As Brown had trusted, the school’s needs were met. In 1990, the Wisconsin State Legislature passed the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the first publicly funded voucher program in the country. The lawmakers initially restricted the program to 1,000 low-income Milwaukee public school students, who could use the vouchers only at non-religious private schools—which didn’t include Believers in Christ. But the new legislation prompted an organization of philanthropists called Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE) to launch a private voucher program that poor children could use in religious schools, enabling Believers in Christ to get, for the first time, a number of customers paying something like full tuition. Then, three years ago, the Wisconsin Legislature expanded the Milwaukee voucher program to include up to 15,000 students and allowed them to take their tuition vouchers to religious schools. This year, half of Believers in Christ’s 250 students are carrying public vouchers worth $4,900 or the per-pupil cost of the school (whichever is lower), and a couple of dozen still have PAVE vouchers. That allowed Cheryl Brown to begin to pay her teachers and herself real salaries and meet some of the school’s other basic financial needs.
Even so, Brown still hires her staff not on the basis of state credentials or education courses but on other vital qualifications. “We want people who are committed to children and to values,” she explains. “We want staff here who view this school as a mission in life. I believe that if you are committed to children and love them, they will respond and learn anything.”
All the classes I visited kept a sharp focus on a traditional, skills-based curriculum. The fifth-grade class I watched was typical. The children were working over a map of the United States with the place names removed. They eagerly showed off their knowledge of the states and their principal cities. Each of the 20-odd children was engaged, polite, enthusiastic, and informed. Unremarkable, you might say; isn’t this what schoolrooms are supposed to look like? But anyone who has been in an inner-city school in the past generation knows how exceptional, and precious, such a scene really is.
These children are much more likely to become productive citizens than if they had remained in the public schools. Reams of social science research demonstrate that children involved in faith-based institutions are less likely to drop out of school, to end up as teenage parents, and to get caught up in the criminal justice system. Four of the first five graduates of Believers in Christ have already gone on to college. Considering the staggering 80 percent dropout rate among black males in the Milwaukee public schools, who can say that these parents made anything but an excellent choice for their children?
Just as Cheryl Brown was called into urban education by poor, minority parents desperate to save their children so too was Brother Bob Smith. When Smith, an African-American, took his vows as a Capuchin friar almost 20 years ago, the last thing he ever thought he’d be doing was running an inner-city high school. After graduating from Wayne State University in Detroit with a degree in criminal justice, he did his first service for his order as a youth worker and then taught social studies and economics in a Catholic high school. He arrived in Milwaukee in 1984, just when an inner-city Catholic archdiocesan high school named Messmer was going through a crisis. Its run down neighborhood abandoned by the white ethnic former parishioners, Messmer now had a predominantly black, largely non-Catholic student population, whose parents had difficulty paying the tuition.
With almost no warning to parents and staff, the Milwaukee Archdiocese abruptly decided to stop making up Messmer’s growing deficits, and, right in the middle of the spring 1984 semester, it closed the school. Determined not to send their children to public schools, many parents refused to take no for an answer. They organized a Save Messmer committee. After surveying the available talent, the parents’ committee turned to Smith to lead the efforts to save the school and to become its new principal. Then all of 27 years old, he had offered Messmer his services as a teacher, but he had zero experience as a school administrator.
When I met him, still only 41, he reminisced about his 14 years of successful struggle to rebuild Messmer into one of the Milwaukee area’s premier high schools. “For years, we just lived hand-to-mouth,” he recalled. “The parents worked as volunteers in the business office, in the cafeteria, all around the school. Some of them even took out second mortgages to help cover the payroll. At one point we were half a million dollars in debt.” With a trace of bitterness, he remembered that the Milwaukee Archdiocese not only refused to offer any help in getting Messmer on its feet again but denied it the right to advertise itself as a Catholic school.
All around Smith’s office are testimonials to Messmer’s resurrection—plaques honoring students for outstanding academic performance, photographs of such visiting notables as William Bennett and George Will, and copies of laudatory newspaper articles about the school. But the acknowledgment that Smith cherishes most is the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s April 1998 decree recognizing Messmer once again as a Catholic school. The signer of the decree: the same Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland who had ordered Messmer closed in 1984.
Smith rebuilt Messmer on a foundation of excellence and accountability, for students as well as staff. He took no student solely because he or she could pay or came with a scholarship, and he turned away no student solely for lack of funds. Every student he accepted had to make a firm commitment to strive for academic excellence and to complete the school’s very demanding curriculum, which requires every student to take many more courses in math, science, and foreign languages than most of Wisconsin’s affluent suburban high schools require. As for the teachers, says Smith, “We looked for people we considered the best, the most knowledgeable, the most committed, whether they had state teaching credentials or not.”
One of those teachers is 32-year-old Jeff Monday, another first-class educator hired without any graduate education-school training. “Jeff is the only person I ever hired on the spot,” Smith says. “There were people with teaching credentials and more experience, but I have never met anyone with a greater sense of mission.” Eight years ago, Smith decided to groom the young math teacher to become Messmer’s next principal, so that he himself could focus on fund-raising. Two years ago, Monday took over as principal, and Smith became Messmer’s president. Since then, Smith recounts, Monday has been recognized as one of the most talented high school principals in the state and has turned down high-paying offers from other private schools.
Monday’s starting salary as a math teacher was $13,000. As principal, he still makes far less than the top salary paid to teachers in the Milwaukee public schools. He routinely puts in 70- to 80-hour weeks. Monday’s own Catholic education is part of the reason that he is making the financial sacrifice. “What also inspired me about Messmer,” he says, “is the sense of mission here, of working with poor students yet holding them accountable and helping them strive for excellence. We are not in the business of making excuses or allowing the kids to make excuses for themselves.”
You can see evidence of the school’s sense of decorum and seriousness everywhere throughout the ornate building—even in the cafeteria. Look at a typical inner-city public school cafeteria, and you will see everything that’s wrong with the system. The room is generally the noisiest, tensest place in the school building. To keep the students from erupting into violence, burly security guards and a platoon of other teachers and aides are usually on patrol. Central school district employees serve the unappetizing meals mess-hall style. At Messmer, by contrast, a variety of outside vendors, including Pizza Hut, have set up several food stations. The students—from very tough, very violent neighborhoods—line up quietly and pick their favorite foods. Students working part-time are behind the counters or manning the cash register. Not a single security guard or faculty member is in the cafeteria to enforce order—an amazing sight to a regular visitor to urban public schools.
The secret is the inculcation of a culture of civility, through sensible rules enforced fairly and consistently—no hats in school, for instance, no lying, immediate expulsion for violence. I sat at a table with two seniors, Jennifer Vega and Shalonda Greer. They told me that the existence of those rules was the major difference they perceived between Messmer and the public schools that some of their friends attended. “They are very tough here,” Jennifer said. “You can’t break any rule without being punished. And you have to work hard to stay in the school. In the public schools, there’s a lot of violence, and you don’t have to work hard.”
Messmer’s per-pupil cost is $4,600, compared with the public schools’ $7,200. No Messmer student pays more than $2,800, however, and no student who keeps up his grades is ever turned away for inability to pay. The biggest current sources of income to make up the difference are 40 private PAVE scholarships at $1,500 per student and the 150 students who carry state-supported vouchers valued at $4,900 each.
Clearly the taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. With a student body that is 85 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic, with 60 percent of the children from single-parent families and a similar number below the poverty line, Messmer manages to get academic results more characteristic of middle-class, suburban high schools. Its graduation rate is over 95 percent, and almost all the graduates go on to college—the favorite selections being Notre Dame, Marquette, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and a number of black colleges, such as Howard and Spelman. Those who don’t go on to college go either into the military or straight into the workforce. “I have been here 12 years, and I have never had a kid on graduation day say, ‘I don’t know what I am going to do,’” says Smith.
Needless to say, Smith is a big enthusiast for vouchers, not only for helping his school achieve its goals but also for what they might accomplish for the pupils in the public schools. “The Milwaukee public schools started out hating vouchers,” he says, “but it was a real wake-up call for them. They have created a lot of new schools in the last few years, and every one of them has a big banner over the front of the building that says, ‘High standards begin here.’ The superintendent now says, ‘We ought not to be fighting with the choice schools; we should be working with them.’ I want to see the public schools learn the lesson that when they stop making excuses about having to work with poor, minority kids, they will improve.”
While some Milwaukee parents have chosen to take their vouchers to religious schools such as Believers in Christ Christian Academy and Messmer High School, others have chosen to use them in private secular schools. On the city’s Hispanic Near South Side—across town from the neighborhood where Messmer and Believers in Christ stand some 12 blocks from each other—a school called Bruce-Guadalupe has enrolled some 200 to 300 voucher recipients among its 500 students for several years. Once part of the Catholic archdiocese, it is now a secular private school owned by the United Community Center.
The school is the brainchild of the center’s executive director, Argentine-born Walter Sava, 54, a gray-haired, former sixties’ student activist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. After taking a Ph.D. in romance languages at Wisconsin and teaching at Carroll College, Sava took over the reins of the United Community Center ten years ago. In those days, the center had little more than a gymnasium, an after-school program for children, and a drug-prevention program for adults. Since then, Sava has been able to raise several million dollars (from the Bradley Foundation and a long list of major corporations) to build two new buildings and expand the range of the center’s activities. By far his biggest innovation has been to bring the Bruce-Guadalupe K—8 elementary school in under the wing of the center. Combining schools with adult community centers, Sava believes, is a dramatically efficient use of space, since the building and facilities are in use when school is not in session.
A brand-new addition to the main community-center building houses the school. Strikingly beautiful, it has a Spanish architectural flavor, with a pyramidal front entrance that evokes Mayan culture, and traditional Mexican murals and mosaics decorating the corridors. The school and community center share many facilities, including the gym, a health clinic, dance studios, and a large performance auditorium. The center houses a popular, handsomely decorated Hispanic restaurant, which also cooks the meals for the school’s cafeteria. This combining of facilities not only makes for efficient usage of space and economic efficiency, but also provides a sense of shared community and civility. Parents and grandparents mingle with the children, since they often come to the center to attend English classes, visit the health clinic, or eat at the restaurant.
What is immediately striking about the school is that it is multicultural in the best sense of the word. The second- and third-grade classes I visited were full of Hispanic children, many of them recent immigrants, with varying degrees of limited English-language proficiency. In public schools in Milwaukee (and indeed, in most parts of the country), many of these children would have been shunted into bilingual-ed classes. Here, though, I witnessed teachers drilling the students in the English alphabet and sounding out words in English. The reading lessons were clearly based on traditional phonics, not on the faddish and ineffective whole-language method.
This approach largely reflects the educational philosophy of Walter Sava, who, of course, is not a “professional educator.” “People think that because this is a school in the barrio, we are only interested in preserving our culture and our language,” he told me. “Of course we are, but we are also eager to see to it that our kids become proficient in the English language. They are learning to read through phonics. The curriculum is knowledge-based, with clear benchmarks that the teachers can’t deviate from very much. At the end of each grade, there are certain things they have to know and are tested on.” In addition to the full traditional curriculum, the children get plenty of extra work in Hispanic history and literature.
Despite a per-pupil expenditure of $4,200 that is still far less than the $7,200 the city’s public schools spend, Bruce-Guadalupe caps its classes at about 25 students and offers its pupils an amazing range of services—sports programs, a full arts program, and a health clinic with a full-time nurse. This cornucopia of resources results partly from the sharing of facilities with the community center and partly from the administrative and budgetary flexibility Sava enjoys by not being burdened with either a centralized school bureaucracy or a teachers’ union contract.
With its required uniforms and its strict disciplinary code, the school has the feel of an orderly Catholic school stressing character and values. The results in academic performance have been striking. Eighty-one percent of Bruce-Guadalupe’s third-graders scored at or above grade level on the state’s standardized test last year—not only a better outcome than most Milwaukee public schools but close to what some of the suburban Wisconsin schools achieve. These results are all the more remarkable when you consider that 100 percent of Bruce-Guadalupe’s students had to take the test, whereas public schools often excuse students with English-language deficiencies from taking it.
The success of Bruce-Guadalupe has been so universally recognized in Milwaukee that the public school district decided to get on the bandwagon this year and make some money in the bargain. In a unique arrangement, the district contracted with Sava to count all his students as public school students. (There is a certain sleight-of-hand in this arrangement, which claims to be analogous to a public school system’s counting as its own students the disabled kids it contracts to send off to private schools equipped to educate them.) The public school district gave Bruce-Guadalupe $4,800 per pupil from the district, while charging the state $6,000 for each of those same students and pocketing the $1,200-per-kid difference.
Even the Milwaukee Education Association would have supported this arrangement, had Sava allowed the union to come in and try to organize his teachers. He refused. Although he’s paying his beginning teachers the same rates as the public school system, he regards the union culture as the kiss of death. Without the constraints of the Milwaukee teachers’ union contract, for example, he is able to have his teachers come into the school for two weeks or more before the opening of the school year for staff training sessions. He is also able to offer a longer school day and to assure parents that if their children should somehow wind up with an incompetent teacher, that teacher can be fired.
Sava has nothing against the public schools. Indeed, he persuaded a retired Milwaukee public school principal, Allan Nuhlicek, to be Bruce-Guadalupe’s principal for its first two years. “Being a public school person,” Nuhlicek told me, “I wasn’t for vouchers for private schools when I came here. I didn’t like to see money drained off from the public schools—until I saw what you can accomplish with half of the per-pupil costs of the public schools.” Nuhlicek also told me that in 12 years as a Milwaukee public school principal, he had been able to hire only two teachers that he had personally selected; all the rest were forced on him because of the union contract. “Now I’m for schools like this,” he concluded, “to give the union some competition.”
If school choice spreads to more cities and states, David Brennan—a colorful, cowboy-hat-wearing, 68-year-old resident of Akron, Ohio—should write the book on how to get new schools up and running in a hurry. Brennan, a wealthy industrialist, has long fretted about the poor education of many applicants for jobs at his companies, and he has concluded that the public schools, without competition from outside, will never produce the literate, numerate workers the twenty-first-century economy will need. As a prominent Republican fund-raiser, he played a key role in persuading Ohio governor George Voinovich to support the legislation that resulted in Cleveland’s voucher program for 2,000 low-income students.
When the state officially announced the voucher program in April 1996, Brennan was on the spot to make sure that all the children who opted for the program actually had a school to attend. After all the spaces in the existing private schools were filled, 300 or so students were left over, and they enrolled in the two new secular schools that Brennan promised to open. He called them the Hope Academies.
But when the teachers’ union challenged the program’s constitutionality, vouchers were put on hold, pending a ruling from the Ohio courts. The green light didn’t come until mid-August. At that point, 300 students had signed up for a school that didn’t yet exist. If Brennan hadn’t been able to get his schools opened by September 1, those students would have been forced back into the public schools they thought they had escaped.
Until there was a favorable court decision, however, Brennan couldn’t enter into contracts with principals, teachers, and support staff. The only thing he had in hand was an abandoned Catholic school building, leased to him for $1 a year by a friendly bishop. In the 15 frantic days after the August ruling, he and his associates hired principals and teachers for the two schools and bought desks, chairs, and computers. Miraculously, on the official September 1 opening of the two Hope Academies, over 300 poor, mostly minority children, whose parents had fled in desperation from their previous public schools, found reasonably competent teachers in each fully furnished classroom. A few teachers were defectors from the public schools; some were substitute teachers who didn’t have regular, full-time licenses; some were completely unlicensed recent college graduates, who just wanted a chance to teach young children.
Nothing came easy for the rest of that first year. Unaccustomed to a demanding workload, none of the former regular public school teachers lasted till summer vacation. Even the most dedicated teachers found themselves challenged by the job of taking public-school children with poor work habits and inculcating them with a disciplined approach to academic work. “I was shocked to find that many of my third-graders couldn’t spell their names, couldn’t add four plus three, couldn’t even sit still,” recalled teacher Wynne Udovich, a veteran of the school’s first year.
Nevertheless, the school survived. Under tough, battlefield conditions, David Brennan was able to offer a real-life demonstration of his theory that open markets and freedom from bureaucratic constraint will work wonders in education. At the beginning and at the end of the first year, all the Hope students in the third grade took standardized achievement tests in reading and math. According to an analysis by respected scholars from Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Texas, the students scored, on average, 5.4 percentile points higher at the end of the year on the reading test and 15 percentile points higher on the math test. Noting, correctly, that “many of the poorest and most educationally disadvantaged [of the voucher] students went to the Hope schools,” the three scholars concluded that these students nevertheless appeared to be “learning at a faster rate” than their counterparts in other public schools.
A recent analysis by Indiana University professors showed some slippage on the test for the next group of third-graders. David Brennan doesn’t dispute the findings; he attributes them to some unprepared teachers, since departed, and promises that the school will remedy the situation. But while one appropriate yardstick of the voucher schools’ success is standardized test scores, an equally important evaluation is the one that parents deliver. Even more than whether their children score a few points higher on a standardized test, what they want to know is whether their kids are in a safe environment, and whether they are being taught good study habits and appropriate moral lessons.
When I visited the Hope Central Academy, I could easily see why most of the parents were satisfied with their choice. The school is located in a formerly Polish and Czech neighborhood in southeast Cleveland. It doesn’t need security guards or metal detectors. Dressed in their blue-and-white school uniforms, the children move through the hallways quietly and civilly. In every classroom I visited, the children were deeply engrossed in serious academic work. Each of the rooms had its own computer area, with five or six workstations. In a second-grade classroom, children sat at each of the terminals, working on a math program coordinated with a standardized achievement test. All the other children were quietly writing in their workbooks, under the no-nonsense supervision of their teacher, Kay Linear.
Like the other voucher schools I visited, Hope Central Academy was living proof that professional education certification and graduate education degrees are not synonymous with better educators. Kay Linear is a case in point: a middle-aged black woman, she had had a successful career in business and then had decided to go into teaching, without an ed-school degree, after her own children had grown up. The school’s dynamic computer director and fifth-grade teacher, 27-year-old Stacie Morris, is another case in point. A former public-school teacher from upstate New York, she moved to the Cleveland area when her husband got transferred, and she discovered that her New York State teaching license wasn’t valid in the Cleveland public schools. So she went to work at Hope Central, which, unhampered by the public school system’s bureaucratic regulations, hired her with enthusiasm. “I’ve been thrilled to work here,” she told me. “My colleagues are really committed; everyone works very hard, and we have the flexibility to do things that couldn’t be done in the public schools.”
Similarly, the principal of the school is Linas Vysnionis, now 35, a tall, bearded lawyer who had his own law practice and did some college teaching before deciding that he wanted to teach young children. He taught fourth grade at Hope Central before becoming principal last year. “I’d be the first to admit that I have a lot more to learn,” says Vysnionis, “but I think I’m given the freedom and discretion to get things done that I wouldn’t get in a public school. And a lot of what I do is simple commonsense: you let the teachers do their jobs, and you back them up.”
Part of the commonsense approach is that the school spends very little for administration. Vysnionis has an office staff of three: a secretary, an admissions secretary, and a bookkeeper. The only expenditures for security are the closed-circuit cameras near the front door and the buzzer system for letting visitors in. The school is able to direct almost all its financial resources to the classroom, so it can keep class size under 30 and can afford computers and educational software for the classrooms.
David Brennan, the man who hired Vysnionis and brought Hope Central into existence, is probably the most optimistic and visionary voucher advocate in the country. He sees his two Cleveland schools as prototypes for a revolutionary approach to education. He has already surveyed his hometown, Akron, and discovered that the city has enough room in existing churches and community centers to create new schools for all the city’s public school students if, as is highly unlikely, a voucher program should impel them to abandon the existing public schools en masse. And he is certain that more school choice will bring more, and more creative, Americans into education. “I know that when choice becomes universal, there are 1 million people out there who are smarter than we are, who are going to solve all these problems of inner-city education,” he says, with infectious enthusiasm. “There is nothing more impressive than American innovation. Let’s give it a chance.”
Cheryl Brown, a black evangelical Christian; Brother Bob Smith, a black Capuchin friar; Walter Sava, a Hispanic community activist; and David Brennan, a millionaire white industrialist—here is a taste of what American diversity at its best can achieve. What these four exemplary Americans have accomplished is to kindle some of those “thousand points of light” that one of our ex-presidents liked to talk about. In their schools, they are giving thousands of disadvantaged children the best possible opportunity to grow up to be productive adults. They do this not by portraying the children as victims needing special privileges but by holding them to one common standard of excellence and hard work.
But these four individuals are also accomplishing something else of significance. In their separate ways, they are demystifying schooling by disproving the widely accepted dogma that only government-certified education professionals know what and how to teach children. This myth has spawned a vast, interlocking industry of education schools, certification boards, teachers’ unions, and school-board officials, and it has certainly boosted the material interests of those certified professionals. But the dogma has done little for America’s schoolchildren. The four educators profiled here, and hundreds of others like them, are showing us a different—and better—way. Clearly, it’s in our interest to make sure that they are able to continue.