Alveda C. King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., helps unfurl a CEO Michigan waiting list of more than 4,000 urban children seeking private scholarships that would allow them to enroll in the school of their choice. She is assisted by Joseph P. Overton at a November 1997 Mackinac Center news conference at the capitol in Lansing.
by Pamela Pettibone
Vouchers or tax credits, charter or private schools: the school choice debate continues
unabated in the political sphere. But families with children in poorly performing schools
don't have the luxury of waiting for these political issues to be resolved-their kids have
to be back in school each September.
For upper- and middle-income families, their educational choices may consist of living
in an affluent and successful school district or else sending their children to a private
school that upholds their particular belief system. For poor families, however, school
choice can mean the difference between dropping out or moving up. For them, purchasing a
home in a wealthy suburb is not a likely option, and private school tuition as low as
$2,500 per student may represent as much as 8 to10 percent of the total family income.
But help is available from private voucher programs such as Children's Educational
Opportunity Foundation of Michigan (CEO Michigan). State Senate Majority Leader and
Republican candidate for lieutenant governor Dick Posthumus established the foundation in
1994 under the premise that "all parents should have the right to choose where their
children go to school" and have greater freedom in providing educational
Three years ago, CEO Michigan selected 150 scholarship recipients from a pool of about
1,200 applicants: Each student had slightly better than a one-in-ten chance to receive
aid. This year the list has ballooned to over 5,000 applicants from across the state who
hope to receive tuition assistance from CEO Michigan. All of these students and their
parents heard of CEO Michigan's voucher program through their schools or from families who
have already been helped.
CEO Michigan co-chairman Betsy DeVos believes that the impact of a CEO grant may not be
quantifiable, but maintains that, "a missed opportunity falls into the nebulous world
of 'might-have-beens.' Headlines every week remind us that our children and families, and
therefore our entire nation, are at risk." DeVos continues, "Education isn't the
only problem, and school choice isn't the only answer. But the parents who have applied to
our program for scholarship assistance believe the schools they have chosen will
contribute to forming their children into successful adults. And these parents are willing
to make great personal sacrifices to reach that goal."
Applying for a grant is simple. The parent receives an application form from the chosen
school, or directly from CEO Michigan. If the family falls within the income guidelines
for the Federal Reduced Price Hot Lunch program listed on the back of the application,
they fill it out and send it to the CEO Michigan office. The foundation chooses the names
of scholarship recipients by lottery, and notifies the parents by letter. The parents
select a suitable school for their child, the school of choice is contacted in the fall,
and the grant money is sent directly to the school on behalf of the child.
The reasons these parents and guardians want school choice vary greatly, but all of the
recipients are quick to express their thanks. One grandmother writes, "The school
that my granddaughter attended before was dysfunctional and profane
. I appreciate to
the fullest your help with her to stay in St. Michael's." Many parents choose schools
that uphold their personal religious beliefs. One mother put it this way, "Having
Christ as the center and foundation of the educational process is important to our entire
. We are very grateful for CEO's assistance in financing our son's
As Michigan legislators, voters, and parents sort out the best way to educate all of
our young people, CEO Michigan provides the opportunity for low-income families to have
real choices for their children today.
Pamela Pettibone is program administrator with CEO Michigan of Grand Rapids, a
private scholarship program serving the entire state of Michigan.