In his address to a joint session of Congress last month, President Trump suggested a national tax credit for education that would allow individuals and corporations to make deductible donations to funds that offer scholarships to low-income K–12 students. Similar programs are already working wonders at the state level: in 2017, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program helped cover the cost of education for more than 78,000 students, offering desperately needed options to low-income families in a state that lags behind the national average in most school-performance metrics. Need-based scholarships to attend independent schools offer hope to hundreds of thousands of children around the country, giving them the chance to navigate their education with the freedom and opportunity that public schools too rarely provide.
Trey Cobb, 20, is a grateful beneficiary of private scholarships. “For my entire life I have been on scholarship to Catholic schools,” he recalled, remembering the several schools he attended in his native Chicago area under the guidance of his parents, who worked as Catholic school educators. Cobb became interested in education reform at DePaul University, where he graduated last May at the age of 19, and he currently teaches middle school math at the Mount Carmel–Holy Rosary School in Harlem.
As Cobb did, 75 percent of students at Mount Carmel–Holy Rosary receive scholarships to help cover the price of tuition. Despite the challenges of educating low-income students, Cobb relishes the independence of the school environment. “A Catholic-school classroom can be a laboratory of pedagogical approaches,” he said, describing how adapting his curriculum and moving talented students ahead by a grade level are made easy by MCHR’s flexible structure.
The fruits of this flexibility are borne out in the numbers. With a budget of $10,500 per student (less than half of the New York state average in 2015–16), the school achieved 59-percent proficiency in math and over 60 percent in literacy on the most recent statewide examination. MCHR is a member of the Partnership Schools—a network of six Catholic schools in the South Bronx and Harlem that serve the region’s neediest students and yet collectively outscored New York City public and charter schools on the 2015–16 state exam.
Of course, success can’t be measured by test scores alone. On top of the core curriculum, MCHR students learn ballroom dancing, fine arts, and violin—along with the tenets of character and faith that anchor the school’s mission. “We want to form our students as faith-filled young people who grow up to be of service to others,” said Suzanne Kaszynski, principal of the school since 2002. Reflecting on her school’s success, however, Kaszynski paused to note how much MCHR’s model depends on public generosity. “The Archdiocese of New York had us slated for closure in 2004,” she recalled, citing the low enrollment and budget deficit that had plagued the school for years. An angel donor offered a gift large enough to put the school back on track; the rise of private scholarships has kept it steady and flourishing over the following decade.
On both the school and scholarship sides of the education world, dedicated reformers are working to expand this model of success to as many schools as possible. “You can’t have school choice and not be ready with good options,” said Partnership Schools executive director Jill Kafka, who noted that she often receives calls from other school administrators to discuss successful methods. “We focus on doing more with less, but on striving for excellence in everything we do,” she explained, describing how the six schools have steered clear of “blended learning” and other expensive substitutes for skillful teaching.
Darla Romfo, president of the national Children’s Scholarship Fund, echoed this simple, student-centered approach to reform. “I don’t think of it as ‘school choice,’ ” she said, referring to the nearly 30,000 scholarships that CSF has offered students since 1998. “I think of it as, ‘how can we help as many kids as possible?’ ”
At every level of the movement to help students in need—from federal policymakers to classroom teachers—optimism is mixed with a stark awareness of the work that remains to be done. “There are millions of kids like us who aren’t getting lucky,” said Cobb, referring to the children beyond the walls of schools like MCHR who haven’t been given the chance that he and his students received. Near the end of our conversation, Cobb pointed toward a housing project that borders his school, and then toward the public middle school just down the street. “Every day, kids are waking up in that project—some go to that school, and others come here,” he remarked. “I know that these students have radically different life outcomes.” As lawmakers prepare to reform education at the federal level, they should recognize their chance to expand opportunity for low-income children who are trapped by limiting circumstances—including their schools.
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