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Voucher program front and center

Businessmen gather to map out the national movement, which will be affected if an upcoming court decision kills public funding for Florida's experiment.

The ballroom at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel was filled with the sound of children's voices. Nineteen youngsters from the nearby Potters House Christian School moved their arms like waves of grain and sang of being Children of the Living God.

Behind them stood an enormous sign with a cartoon-likeness of a little red schoolhouse, and imperfect block letters that read: "Putting Children First."

The children were the entertainment _ and the symbolic focus _ of a strategy session and general meeting last week in Grand Rapids, Mich., for the board of Children First, the brains and money behind the nation's school voucher movement. Richard DeVos, president of Amway and owner of the Orlando Magic, was there. So was New York philanthropist Virginia Gilder. And Tampa venture capitalist John Kirtley. John Walton, the Wal-Mart heir who tends to shun the spotlight, sent his regrets.

Their mission: getting lawmakers from sea to shining sea to spend public money to give parents a choice of either a private school or a public school education for their kids. The many privately funded voucher projects (now in 80 cities and affecting 50,000 children) are regarded by the group as "demonstration models," experiments to show the way.

"There's not enough private money," said Fritz Steiger, president of Children First. Despite an investment of as much as $270-million in privately funded vouchers, the money behind the movement knows it's a drop in the bucket. The nation spends $386-billion for public education.

"Tax-supported choice," Steiger said, "is the ultimate goal of our organization."

That's what makes Florida potentially the grandest of all the experiments. As Steiger puts it, "Florida sent a message: "This can be done.' "

For the true believers, the nation's first statewide publicly funded voucher program is cause for both celebration and a sense of dread. It could grow nearly tenfold in the next few months as thousands of Florida families learn whether they qualify for vouchers. Florida already has provided priceless images of low-income African-American mothers sending their children to private schools in neat uniforms courtesy of tax dollars.

Meanwhile, a court decision is expected this summer. There is a very real possibility the Florida court will shut off public dollars, delivering a blow to the entire movement.

If that happens, the only thing that could keep the Florida program alive would be private money; once again the movement would rely on the resources and patience of the people in the Amway Grand last week.

"About the kids'

Among school choice advocates, they're not vouchers; they're scholarships.

They're not public schools; they're government-run schools.

During the Children First founder's meeting last week, a pair of veteran pollsters drove home an old message that cannot be forgotten in the political battles over vouchers: Words count. Symbolism is powerful.

"The Left has made an industry out of saying they're for kids," said Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, president of a political consulting company. Her message was that the Right needs to communicate that they, too, are for kids _ even more than the other guys.

"You have to hold kids up as an emotional symbol," said co-panelist Wes Anderson, former director of polling for the Republican National Committee. "That's our ace in the hole. It has to always be about the kids."

Hence the name: Children First.

The organization had been known as CEO America. The CEO part stood for Children's Educational Opportunity. It's a neat acronym, but it conjured images of well-heeled businessmen. The new name is heartwarming. It tells you what the group is about. During the transition, the name is a combination of the old and new: Children First CEO America.

If you want a perfect example of a carefully crafted name, consider the Michigan campaign for a constitutional amendment to allow for vouchers. It's called Kids First! Yes!. Three upbeat words, and the favorite punctuation mark of the Right, that tell voters what it's about and how to vote.

(Voucher opponents play their own word-spin games. You rarely hear a teachers union official refer to the issue as anything other than a "voucher scheme.")

For years now, the voucher movement has been a loose confederation of privately funded projects, often operating in relative anonymity. (There has been a private voucher program in Orlando since 1995). But now, with tax-supported vouchers as the stated goal, the movement is waging the battle more openly, more with an eye toward appearances, more like the political campaign that it is.

This is shaping up as a critical year for the vouchers movement. The issue has grown from a mere blip on the national radar to become a key issue in the presidential campaign. A court case out of Ohio is wending its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A November ballot initiative in Michigan looks promising.

Then there's Florida. If vouchers are going to become the nationwide movement they envision, voucher advocates are counting on the Sunshine State to show that such a program can work on a large scale.

"Save every kid'

Look at the Children First board of directors and you might conclude they need to work on their image. The group is overwhelmingly white (though it includes an African-American priest from Milwaukee), conservative and well off. It's the kind of group that gets things done, but generally is not perceived as having the best interest of minorities and the poor in mind.

That lineup makes it easy for a critic like Samantha Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network to say: "These are generally arrogant, rich, white men who have done nothing whatsoever for the public schools."

Some voucher advocates don't quite fit that description.

Gilder sounds like a mom when she talks about her 1996 offer to pay private school tuition for any child that wanted to leave the dismal Giffen Elementary School in Albany.

Earlier this year, when Gilder was rumored to be considering a bid for the U.S. Senate race in New York against Hillary Clinton, a Daily News headline referred to her as a "Rich Unknown." For three years now she has been quietly paying private school tuition for some 135 children in Albany. She winces as she acknowledges that "the dollar numbers become gigantic." But she's continuing to pay rather than "pitch them back into the system."

Peter Flanigan tried to help the public schools first.

He and his wife offered financial assistance to any student in a particular South Bronx classroom who graduated from high school and wanted to go to college. Only a few of the kids went on to college, a sobering experience for a well-to-do businessman accustomed to getting results. Flanigan concluded the public schools had failed the students.

"I bet all of us here started this effort (with the thought) "I'm going to save every kid I can,' " Flanigan said. He decided vouchers were the best hope.

If the movement is going to get the kind of widespread public support it needs, it will have to rely on people like Cory Booker. He is the youngest person elected to the Newark Municipal Council. He's a great public speaker, with passion for the cause. He's also a young African-American man. And a Democrat.

Booker, a former Stanford football player, Rhodes scholar and a graduate of Yale Law School, told the Children First audience that he used to think "an organization like this was a scourge on America."

But Booker saw some troubling things in the schools in his adopted inner-city neighborhood. He had some long philosophical debates with Tampa's John Kirtley. As he puts it, he now believes, "Whichever school can get the job done should get the government dollars."

If things go according to plan, the face of the vouchers movement is going to be parents like Jacqueline Robinson. The millions spent on private vouchers has been an investment, both in children, and in recruiting parents like her to the cause.

Robinson is an African-American woman whose children attend private school in Detroit on a private voucher. She is a small and unassuming woman, but she knows how to work an audience. No, she didn't want to abandon the public schools. But she was frustrated. She didn't think the public schools were doing the job.

"Are we to feed the system one more body in hopes that it will spring to life and improve?" she asked.

Regardless of how many passionate moms and how many generous philanthropists are devoted to the voucher movement, a few adverse court rulings could bring it all to a screeching halt. At least as far as public money is concerned.

Ultimately this coalition of private sector doers will have to rely on matters outside its control: court decisions and public support.

Considering all that, it's surprising that Clint Bolick seems like such a happy guy.

As litigations director for the libertarian group Institute for Justice, Bolick is keeping track of five anti-voucher lawsuits in four states. One of them, the Ohio case, seems destined for the U.S. Supreme Court. In a Florida case, an appeals court is expected to render a decision perhaps in August.

A win in the Ohio case would be a boon to the movement. A loss, Bolick says optimistically, might still be helpful by laying out a blueprint. The court might send a signal: You can't do it this way, but perhaps you could do it that way. As far as a decisive victory, Bolick said he's counting on the Florida case.

"Frankly, there's no program I'd more like to have before the Supreme Court than Florida's," Bolick said, speaking outside the conference in Grand Rapids last week. He seems genuinely to be looking forward to the battle. On his organization's Web site, he and his colleagues are called the "merry band of litigators."

In the meantime, Bolick said, the initial goal in Florida is to avoid having a judge shut down the program. It will be harder, he believes, for a judge to do so if there are actual kids involved _ like the 53 youngsters using school vouchers in Pensacola.

"It's a choice between arguing an abstraction and arguing the real world," Bolick said. "It's our job to get as many kids into the program and keep them there."