If he’d chosen to, Patrick Keleher Jr. could have kept his job with Chicago United–a group of civic-minded business leaders–and his position in the inner circle of school reformers.

Instead he quit that job in 1989 to launch TEACH America, a not-for-profit advocate of educational choice: Keleher endorses what has come to be known as a voucher program. If he were king, parents would be able to send their children to virtually any public, private, or religious school at the government’s expense. He contends that only then can the city solve its educational crisis.

“I used to be a liberal when it came to education, but now I’m a revolutionary,” says Keleher. “It’s a question of letting the marketplace work its magic. I don’t see any other solution but choice.”

As the president of TEACH, Keleher issues a steady stream of punchy articles, speeches, and manifestos that jab at the Board of Education’s central office, praise the Catholic schools, and extol the virtues of any one of several choice bills now pending in the state legislature.

He’s also managed to build a small but loyal following made up of conservative Democrats, suburban Republicans, and grass-roots black activists–all the while alienating most of his erstwhile school-reform allies, who fear that Keleher’s vision of choice creates more problems than it solves.

“Choice as a vehicle for school improvement is a wonderful piece of rhetoric that is unsupported by any research or intellectual backing,” says Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, a leading reform group. “I like Pat, but he and other choice advocates haven’t done all their homework–and yet they propound choice as a solution.”

Keleher shrugs off such criticism, which he has heard many times before. To him, choice is a matter of fairness.

“I was raised in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s west side,” he says. Now 50, Keleher was an executive at Illinois Bell before joining Chicago United. “But I didn’t attend a city school, I attended Fenwick High, one of the finest Catholic schools in the suburbs. My father didn’t have a lot of money–he had to work extra jobs to pay the tuition. But he realized the importance of a good education, and that’s where he chose to send me.”

It bothers Keleher that so many lower-income parents in Chicago do not have the same options his father had. There are fewer jobs going begging, and parents can’t afford private-school tuitions without that extra income. And they don’t know how to manipulate the system to get their children into the finest public schools. Instead they’re dispatched to the neighborhood school, no matter how good or bad, which has no choice but to take them. The result is a sorting process in which the kids in the so-called good schools are steered toward a life of relative prosperity, while their less fortunate peers emerge from 12 years of education virtually illiterate and incapable of making their way in an increasingly complex world.

Keleher recognizes these disparities, and it makes him angry. “The wealthy business leaders of Chicago don’t just send their children to any old school,” he says. “Neither do many of the leading school reformers. They want the best for their children, and they are willing to exercise all of their options. They have choice and they use it. So if it’s good for them, why isn’t it good for poor people?”

Choice is the natural extension of the school reform movement, says Keleher. As he sees it, parents cannot be truly empowered unless they have the option of enrolling their children in schools outside the public system.

“Low-income parents are captive to an educational monopoly,” says Keleher. “And so long as they remain captive, they have no leverage. The school system should work the way any market does. If a store sells bad clothes, people won’t shop there and the store will close. Similarly, if a school can’t teach reading, most parents would not send their children there. They’ll go to a different school that can teach. And the poor school would either shape up or close. That’s the way a market works.”

Keleher dismisses the argument that academic performance is linked to the income levels and backgrounds of parents. “Don’t tell me that poor kids can’t learn,” says Keleher. “We have some great success stories right here in River City with the Catholic schools. Their students generally perform better than kids in similar public schools. Their parents are more involved. And [the Catholic schools] spend less money on administrative costs.”

Keleher launched TEACH with support from the City Club, a long-standing group of civic leaders who sponsor monthly forums. Many of his ideas are based on an experimental project in Milwaukee in which the state has allowed certain low-income families in a given area to spend about $1,500 per child on private tuition.

“In my proposal, like Milwaukee’s, the money would not go directly to the parents,” says Keleher. “What happens is that the parents select a school, and then that school bills the state for every student who goes there.”

Where Keleher’s proposal falls apart a bit is in the details–there are none. Or at least he hasn’t had time to think them all through. First of all, there’s the matter of who should receive subsidies. For the moment, Keleher would limit them to the poor. But many of his allies want subsidies for the middle class.

Second, he’s unsure exactly how much the subsidy should be for each child. In Milwaukee, the allowance is based on a rough approximation of the state’s per-pupil expenditure. But $1,500 would not begin to cover tuition at the city’s most expensive private schools, like Francis Parker, the University of Chicago Lab School, and Latin (where high school tuition can be as much as $10,000 a year). Nor would that amount allow inner-city students to attend the great suburban schools, like Evanston’s or Winnetka’s. In short, Keleher’s proposal (like the ones recently offered by President Bush) would not erase the unfair advantage the well-to-do have over the poor. Under it, Chicago’s poor would have little more choice than they have now.

“You’re right, this is not the ultimate choice program,” says Keleher. “But I must confront certain political realities. It’s just not feasible for me to endorse a plan that allows students to cross municipal boundaries. And there’s only so much money the state will allow to be spent on private tuition. I’m a free-market purist, but I also have to have some degree of realism.”

One thing for sure, in Keleher’s proposal the government will have little to say about the day-to-day operation of the private schools funded. As it is now, he says, the hands of most public school operators are tied by unwieldy government regulations.

“There would be some regulations–for instance, I wouldn’t want to see state money go to a school that promoted the superiority or inferiority of any race or ethnic group,” says Keleher. “But as much as possible I would like to limit regulations. I would probably allow some form of corporal punishment, and religious schools would definitely be eligible. The whole point is to get government out of the picture and to give parents more control.

“And I don’t want to hear a church/state argument. We allow students governmental scholarships to go to Catholic colleges. Why shouldn’t they be used for elementary or high schools? I call it a GI bill for kids.”

Keleher’s ideas are well received by leaders of the Catholic church and parents who send their children to parochial schools. Blacks frustrated by the limitations of their neighborhood schools are a particularly receptive audience. (As Keleher notes, Milwaukee’s program is sponsored by state representative Polly Williams, who represents a poor black district and is an ally of Jesse Jackson.)

One black parent who supports Keleher’s ideas is John Jenkins II, an aspiring filmmaker who lives with his wife and four children in a CHA housing complex on the far south side.

“Last year I sent my oldest children to the local public school,” says Jenkins. “It was horrible. My daughter wasn’t learning anything. There were numerous fights in the school. I saw drug sales going on. Other kids would pick on my daughter because they said she talked differently. She hated going there. She started having nightmares and wetting her bed.”

Jenkins says he couldn’t afford private or parochial tuition, so he lied about his address and had his children transferred to a north-side public school. “But they were immediately discharged once the officials found out about our real address,” says Jenkins. “I was helpless; I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t send them back to the old neighborhood school. The very thought of going there brought back my daughter’s nightmares. Finally the principal let them back after we begged her. But we’re living on the edge–they could be kicked out at any time. That’s why I support Pat’s proposal for choice. Otherwise we’re completely at the mercy of the system.”

Jenkins has more choices than he realizes, of course. Many magnet schools accept out-of-district students. And Jenkins might have applied for financial aid from a private school. Parents all over the city already exercise choice. According to some reformers, roughly 50 percent of the system’s black students now go to schools outside their districts.

In fact, most reformers say they support some sort of choice for parents, often curricular choice. As a model, they look to the public schools of East Harlem in New York, where parents and students help design a curriculum of their own choosing.

The real issue, Keleher’s critics say, is whether the government should divert educational funds from public schools at a time when so many school systems are hard up. Possibly Keleher’s vision of choice would further aggravate the very disparities he says he opposes.

“Pat has to ask himself, where will the money come from to pay these tuition bills?” says Hess. “Does he advocate a tax increase? I doubt it. What he’s talking about is taking money that would otherwise go to the public schools. That would mean less money for teachers, which would lead to more strikes and chaos. You have to think these things through.”

Despite the criticism, Keleher remains fervently loyal to his cause. “Choice is the blueprint for the future,” he says. “It’s what most parents want. And frankly, I believe it’s only a matter of time before they get it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.