Memphis School Choice Blog
The crowd was full of MOST's friends who had come to recognize the achievements of the 2012 graduates and their families, but instead, the students and their parents turned the praise back on the generous donors who had made their educational journeys possible.
"When I got into Christian Brothers (High School), that was when I really found out about MOST and how much they have helped me," said Johnas Venzant, a MOST Scholar since the 3rd grade. "I really appreciate all the help you've given. Without y'all, I probably wouldn't have made it through high school."
Johnas' sentiments were echoed throughout the evening by the twelve (out of sixteen total) MOST graduates who attended the reception at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens on May 1.
"Through you, who are donors to MOST, who sacrificed generously" said mom Ruth Lomo, a Sudanese refugee, "our children are able to have a hope and a future."
When MOST started in 1998, we were going it alone -- that first year we were able to provide 156 scholarships to Memphis students. But the next year, we entered into a partnership with Children's Scholarship Fund, a national organization that not only raises funds for more than 8,000 scholarships in New York City, where it's headquartered, but also provides matching funds to 33 partner organizations, like MOST, around the country. As a result of our partnership with CSF, we were able to increase the number of students served in our second year to more than 700! They continue to help MOST fund about 500 partial scholarships each year for Memphis-area children in kindergarten through 8th grade.
So, in gratitude for the part they have played in the lives of so many Memphis children, we want to take a moment to share with you CSF's 2010-2011 Annual Report. The report tells the story of the ripple effect that is created in families and communities by investing in the education of low-income children. In it, you'll read about twins Aaron and Jessica, whose parents didn't finish high school, but who have plans themselves to become a doctor and an astronaut respectively. But not before they learn to foxtrot, tango and salsa their way through the twice-weekly dance classes at Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary School. (Take my word for it -- you want to check out the report for pictures of them in action!)
MOST would not be able to serve the number of kids we do without the generous support of Children's Scholarship Fund. We are also grateful to other friends, foundations and organizations that have allowed MOST to expand its scholarship program to include chidren in pre-kindergarten and high school. On behalf of the 550 students who just started the new school year at the school of their parents' choice with the help of a MOST Scholarship, we thank you!
Earlier this year, the state of Indiana passed legislation making "choice scholarships" (aka, school vouchers) available to children from low-income families starting this fall. Not long after the bill's passage, the editorial page of The Times of Northwest Indiana published this piece in which it called for some type of guide for parents to use as they navigate their options, now including traditional public, public charter and private schools. Its last line was this: "The Indiana Department of Education pushed hard to make these choices available to parents. Now it needs to provide a guide to parents so they can choose wisely."
At the same time, back in Tennessee, our state legislators were taking up the issue of "opportunity scholarships" (same thing, different name) for low-income students from the state's four largest cities. The legislation passed the Senate, but fell short in the House, and was sent to a "summer study session." It will likely be brought back before the House in the next legislative session. We at MOST are encouraged by the prospects of this legislation that could provide to thousands of students the opportunities that we have offered to hundreds each year for over a decade.
However, we know from experience that just presenting a smorgasbord of options to parents does not mean that they will necessarily choose a better school than the public one to which their child is assigned. Paying tuition for a school does not automatically make it better, nor is one school, no matter how great it is for one child, necessarily the right choice for another. Parents need information and the tools to assess that information so they can make good school decisions for their children.
MOST has just this year started providing more school choice resources through our new website, including info on pubic, private and charter schools, as well as links to valuable tools like the Picky Parent Guide. Our plan to is to make this resource more extensive and robust because if our years of operating a scholarship program have taught us one thing, it's that equipping parents to make good school choices is just as important as providing them with the resources to be able to do so.
Tennessee has the opportunity to take school choice legislation a step further than any other state has thus far by providing both financial and informational resources to parents. As our legislators consider the opportunity scholarship bill again this fall, they should also add in language requiring that private schools wishing to participate in the program provide at least a basic level of information, including qualifications of the leadership and teaching staff, accreditation, info on financial assistance, and key stats like student-teacher ratios. This information should be made publicly available to parents online.
Furthermore, if our state really wants to provide a valuable service to parents, it would develop easy-to-use, web-based tools to help parents assess their child's and family's educational needs, and equip and empower them with the right questions to ask as they research all school options -- public, private and charter. Making good school choices isn't easy, but it can be made much easier with the help of good information and tools. We hope our lawmakers will think not only about the policy of school choice as they craft this legislation, but also its practice -- both of which matter a great deal.
One of the best parts about working at MOST is hearing from the grateful parents of our MOST Scholars. Today, we got an email from Marilyn Johnson, mom of Marshall, and you could practically feel her pride in her son radiating from the computer screen.
Marshall is a rising 7th grader at St. George's Independent School. This past year, he maintained a 3.4 GPA, while playing golf, lacrosse and basketball, playing drums in the school's concert band, and being faithfully involved at his church. He plans to add football into this mix in the fall, and is scheduled to take a rigorous course load, including pre-algebra, French and Latin. And he even fits in some public speaking gigs in his spare time!
Marilyn tells us that the day she was told about the MOST Scholarship Program nine years ago was a day that changed their lives forever. "We will always be grateful for the MOST scholarship that has been provided for my son, Marshall."
We at MOST are proud to partner with great kids and parents like Marshall and Marilyn!
To our Tennessee State Legislators,
As the founder and board chairman of Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Trust (MOST), the only elementary and secondary scholarship program for low-income children in the state of Tennessee, I would like to offer some thoughts on the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act that passed the state senate earlier this year and which is scheduled to come before the house again in the next legislative session.
While MOST is not a political organization and does not seek to lobby for or against any particular bill, we are obviously supportive of the concept behind this legislation, in that it expands the educational options currently available to low-income families.
This spring, The Commercial Appeal published an excellent article on the Catholic Jubilee schools. These eight inner-city schools are educating 1,400 low-income, urban children, 80% of whom are not Catholic, in safe, loving, and academically stimulating environments. But in order to reopen and run these schools which had been shuttered for years as the Catholic population relocated to other areas, it took a $12 million initial donation from local philanthropists, and ongoing fundraising by a number of non-profit organizations, including MOST.
We are deeply grateful for the donations of these philanthropists and the many other people who have made these great schools, as well as scores of other private and parochial schools, available to low-income kids in Memphis. However, students should not have to rely on the kindness of strangers when it is to the children’s benefit and to the benefit of the entire community that they are educated effectively today -- not having to wait until after reform takes hold in their neighborhood public schools.
We agree that there is need for caution in legislation of this type, so we are glad that it is being studied further over the summer. For thirteen years, MOST has administered a similar, although privately-funded, program for approximately 600 students annually. Our experience in this area leads us to think that there are a number of its provisions which require further thought including, but not limited to, the following:
- There should be a thorough qualification (and annual re-qualification) process involving the submission of proof of income (e.g., tax returns, documentation of government assistance, child support, etc.) to ensure that families are financially eligible for the scholarship. This will cut down on fraud that could endanger the image and longevity of the program.
- Schools that accept scholarships should be required to provide a certain amount of information, which the state would then make available to parents so that they can use it to evaluate the school. Factors such as how long the school has been in operation, the qualifications of its teachers and administrators, and student/teacher ratios are all critical pieces of information parents need in order to evaluate a school properly.
As we look to the future, we at MOST hope that those making important decisions for our most vulnerable children will embrace the concept of parental choice. Furthermore, we believe that those choices should fall into a broad spectrum of options along the public-private continuum, including reformed public schools, new charter schools, and private schools paid for with the funds that would follow low-income children to the schools which their parents deem to be the best option for them. Parents of all means want great schools for their kids and, if vouchers are one way to deliver that, then we believe it is an issue that deserves to be explored further.
Robert M. Solmson
Board Chairman, Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Trust
robertsolmson [at] yahoo [dot] com