Bentonville National Training Workshop a Success

Published December 1, 1997

A successful National Training Workshop was held in Bentonville, Arkansas, on October 28-30. Aimed at individuals interested in starting a privately funded voucher program, the workshop gave participants an opportunity to hear from many of the top administrators of programs already underway across the country.

Among the topics covered during the workshop were “how it all began,” with Tim Ehrgott, executive director of the CHOICE Charitable Trust, who recounted the history of Golden Rule Insurance Company’s CHOICE Charitable Trust. Robert Aguirre provided a brief history of the San Antonio/CEO model, including many characteristics unique to CEO/San Antonio. The new CEO America “how-to” manual was introduced.

The workshop also included a session on “obtaining critical mass,” where panelists discussed the Milwaukee PAVE Model, the Albany/Giffen Model, and the New York City/lottery model. Harvard researcher Dr. Paul Peterson reported on research and monitoring the success of voucher programs, which covered Cleveland, Milwaukee, and other voucher research projects. Sydney Hoff-Hay spoke about the Arizona tuition tax credit program. Other sessions addressed such issues as fundraising, getting organized, public relations, and board recruitment.

Dinner speakers Fritz Steiger and Jimmy Mansour, president and chairman, respectively, of CEO America, described the organization’s history and the topic “Breaking monopolies and Creating Competition.”

Private DC Vouchers Will Help 1,000 Children

Private businessmen Theodore J. Forstmann and John Walton each pledged $1 million a year for three years to the Washington Scholarship Fund, funding scholarships for 1,000 children in the District of Columbia. Their gift will bring the number of DC children receiving scholarship aid to approximately 1,500. The new contributions make the Fund the second largest among the 32 privately funded scholarship programs nationwide.

The first of the $2 million infusions will be used by the Fund in September 1998 to award scholarships of up to $1,700 to eligible students. Students currently served by the Fund come from households with average earnings of only $18,000 a year.

Forstmann, the newly elected chairman of the Fund, made his contribution because of the “really awful” state of the DC public school system. “The lack of educational opportunity available to children in Washington is particularly acute,” he said, “maybe more than anywhere else in America.”

In a barb directed at misplaced priorities in the nation’s capital, Forstmann noted that, “We have thousands of bureaucrats in Washington worrying about the harm that private monopolies can do. But how many people worry about the harmful effects that a public school monopoly can have?”

Forstmann has a long history of direct involvement in children’s causes in the United States and abroad. He is co-founder of camps in Colorado and Florida for chronically ill children, provides funding to help South Africa’s street children, and supports a medical program in Bosnia to care for war-ravaged children. He is also a director and long-term supporter of the Inner City Scholarship Fund.

Walton, who has been a major investor in scholarships for low-income children, charter school development, and other efforts to improve public education, conceded that the Washington Scholarship Fund effort would not help everybody. But, he said, “What we are trying to do is help some children right away, because that is the right thing to do.”

Since its founding in 1993, the Washington Scholarship Fund has grown from 30 students in 12 schools to its current 460 students at 74 schools. To qualify for the scholarships, families must reside in the District of Columbia , have children enrolled in grades K-8, and demonstrate financial need.

Business Supporting Schools That Work

Examining the growth of private scholarship programs, a recent editorial in Investor’s Business Daily noted that large corporations–including State Farm Insurance, Mobil Corp., Miller Brewing Co., and Ford Motor Co.–are jumping on the bandwagon. Although such firms can still boost their public images by supporting public schools, they increasingly realize that they can do more good “by cutting out the public school middleman” and helping kids directly.

“For years, businesses have been waiting for the public schools to improve,” notes the editorial. “But no longer. Fed up with public schools that fail to produce an educated workforce, they’re starting to back private efforts to send kids to schools that work.”

Since the first privately funded voucher program was launched in 1991, some 32 different programs have sprung up around the country, focused mainly on inner-city families. Current enrollments total nearly 14,000, with almost three times that number of students on waiting lists, trying to get into the programs.

“Programs in New York and Los Angeles have 27,000 and 5,000 kids respectively on waiting lists,” said Kevin Teasley, president of the American Education Reform Foundation. “Thousands of children are on waiting lists not because private schools won’t take them, but because we can’t raise enough private money to help children in need.” He urged Congress to pass the American Community Renewal Act to “jump start school choice programs in some 100 communities across the country.”