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'Choice' Offer Stirs Up Indy's Educational Community

CORPORATE leaders throughout the United States are looking to Indianapolis for the latest lessons on the ever-evolving relationship between business and education.For the past year, two separate business groups have doggedly pursued reform of the Indianapolis Public Schools. Although the two organizations differ in their approaches, neither is claiming much success for its efforts. Community Leaders Allied for Superior Schools (CLASS) has worked within the system, consulting educators and bringing bickering parties together whenever possible. Commit Inc., an unaffiliated organization of the state's Fortune 500 companies, has taken a more aggressive approach. The group alienated much of the education establishment by drafting state legislation calling for increased accountability within the system as well as parental choice. But that legislation died after two hearings. Meanwhile, a company outside the partnership circle is getting attention with its own privately funded choice program. In August, Golden Rule Insurance Company created the CHOICE Charitable Trust and pledged $1.2 million to help low-income parents send their children to private and parochial schools. "We wanted to do something substantial," says Timothy Ehrgott, who coordinates the program for Golden Rule. The company is paying half the tuition - up to $800 - for 764 low-income students in first through eighth grade. Slightly more than half of those pupils transferred from the public schools, while the others were already enrolled in private schools. Overwhelming interest in the first come, first served program caused the company to expand it beyond the original 500 students - and 145 more remain on the waiting list. Other companies and individuals in Indianapolis have donated to Golden Rule's fund, and the concept is drawing interest around the US. The Michigan-based Vandenburg Foundation is planning similar programs in Grand Rapids and Detroit. "This is the first salvo, and I think it's going to be closely watched all over the country," says Denis P. Doyle, a senior research fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute in Indianapolis. "I believe the Golden Rule offer came out of frustration with the lack of movement on the part of the administration of Indianapolis Public Schools to begin education reform," says Brice A. Tressler, president of the Indianapolis Education Association, the local teachers union. Nonetheless, Mr. Tressler, other public-school officials - and even some business leaders - criticize the program for undermining public education. "It is not a solution to the problems in Indianapolis Public Schools," he says. "We don't have any dreams of emptying out the public-school system," responds Mr. Ehrgott. "We're trying to help kids out; we're trying to introduce a little debate; and we're trying to force the school system to respond." Whether or not the Golden Rule program is prompting change in the Indianapolis Public Schools is a matter of intense debate in the city. Tressler says the superintendent and the school board aren't fazed by the Golden Rule program. "Even though we lost about 500 children, they [the superintendent and the school board] didn't take any warning from it," he argues. But the school board did recently propose a limited choice program within the public schools. "Right there is a substantive effect of this program," Ehrgott says. "We introduced the idea into the arena and people have paid attention." Tressler calls the school board's initiative for choice "suspect," noting that it was announced the day before Barbara Bush and US Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander visited the city. But, says Carol D'Amico, another research fellow at the Hudson Institute, "the interest of the parents and the community in the Golden Rule program has sent a signal to the school board that people are ready for some radical changes." In the meantime, she says, one company has demonstrated that "the world doesn't come to an end when you take action, and you can make a direct difference in kids' lives." "We're just trying to level out the playing field a little bit," Ehrgott says. "People need to realize that there already is choice in America. If you make enough money, you have choice. You can send your child to the best private school you can afford, you can move to a better neighborhood with a better school system and get your child an improved education. But if you don't have enough money you're stuck with the [public school] system." According to Ehrgott, Golden Rule Insurance Company is simply concerned about the educational level of people it's hiring now and will hire in the future. "If two years from now the public schools have worked to improve themselves and all these parents come back to us and say they'd rather send their kids to the public school, we'd say, 'Great.' "

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