Choice Leaders Celebrate Triumphs

Published July 1, 2000

“When Americans are exposed to the idea of school choice, they react positively,” said Robert Enlow, vice president of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, which has conducted extensive research on public attitudes toward choice. “We need to get in front on getting the message out,” he added, speaking at the Children First CEO America Founders’ meeting on May 17 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In his keynote address to the conference, Amway Corporation President Dick DeVos provided one measure of how strongly Americans embrace the idea of school choice: The Education Freedom Fund received 64,000 applications from low-income Michigan families for 4,000 half-tuition private school scholarships. DeVos is co-chairman of the Fund, a partnership with the Children’s Scholarship Fund.

The conference was attended by 150 school choice leaders from around the nation. The tone was upbeat, and many speakers celebrated that school choice had proven its value and victory was imminent. For example, New York philanthropist and voucher pioneer Virginia Gilder noted that significant improvements were made at New York’s Giffen Elementary School after her program had offered partial scholarships to all students attending the Albany school. However, she struck a practical chord in her remarks.

“Private money cannot compete with public dollars when it comes to educating our children,” she observed. “We must change public education funding.”

The Kids First! Yes! organization in Michigan aims to do just that with a constitutional amendment to provide private school vouchers to children in school districts that fail to graduate two-thirds of their students. The vouchers would be worth one-half of the current average public-school per-pupil expenditure, or roughly $3,100 per student. The Kids First! Yes! initiative would help “parents who have paid into a system that is supposed to provide their children with a decent education, but [who] are getting gravely short-changed,” said DeVos, co-chairman of the effort.

Other speakers included Betsy DeVos, Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, Children First CEO America Chairman of the Board Peter Flanigan, and Florida philanthropist and voucher leader John Kirtley.

$1 Million Challenge in New Mexico

A new statewide private voucher program has been formed in New Mexico, called Educate New Mexico. Beginning this fall, the program will provide $1,000 scholarships for students in grades K-6 and $1,500 scholarships for those in grades 7-10. The scholarships, awarded in a May lottery, may be used at any private or parochial school in the state, with eligibility based on household size and income.

In a move that Educate New Mexico President John Onstad said would make “a big difference in the education of hundreds of children,” Children First CEO America board member John Kirtley announced a $1 million challenge grant, whereby the first $250,000 per year raised by Educate New Mexico would be matched dollar for dollar by Children First CEO America for the next four years.

“This is really, really exciting,” said long-time voucher supporter Governor Gary Johnson, who was present at the May 17 Founders’ meeting. Johnson believes the philanthropic effort will demonstrate the tremendous demand for school choice among New Mexico’s poorest families. Also present to applaud the grant were Rev. Ron Knight, president of the Greater Albuquerque Ministries Alliance, former Governor and Educate New Mexico board member Jerry Apodaca, and numerous parents and children.

Single parent Anita Martinez was one of the first to complete an application for a partial tuition scholarship for her son, an 11-year-old special education student.

“I just want a school that will see hope in my son,” she said.

Parents Pleased with Chattanooga Choice

A recent survey of low-income families whose children are receiving private school scholarships from the CEO Foundation of Chattanooga reveals high levels of satisfaction with the program, with 88 percent reporting their children are happier in private school and 75 percent reporting their children are performing significantly better, too. More than 90 percent of parents also are significantly more satisfied with their children’s education in their present school, where they also see a marked improvement in discipline.

“The parent surveys show the success of school choice among those who are least likely to afford private schools,” stated CEO Executive Vice President Priscilla Caine. “Unfortunately, the CEO Foundation has only been able to help slightly over 500 students to attend the school of their choice,” she added, noting there were more than 3,000 applicants for the scholarships.

Significantly, no parent reported being dissatisfied with his or her child’s behavior at school, or with the education the child received in the CEO Scholarship program. No parent reported a decrease in academic performance, and no child was unhappy in his or her CEO school.

Children First in Virginia

As many as 750 elementary and middle school students from low-income families in central Virginia are expected to benefit from a new private scholarship foundation whose formation was announced recently by Richard L. Sharp, Richmond resident and chairman and CEO of Circuit City.

With initial financial commitments totaling $4.5 million, the Children First Virginia Scholarship Fund plans to award 250 new scholarships by lottery each year for the next three years, starting this fall. The scholarships will cover 50 to 75 percent of the student’s annual tuition up to $2,000/year, with the family responsible for the remaining tuition.

“Children First Virginia was established to provide low-income children and their families the ability to choose the school that they feel is best able to help them achieve their hopes and dreams,” said Sharp, chairman of the fund, noting that students must be eligible for the federal free or reduced lunch program to qualify for a scholarship.

Thanks to a $750,000 matching grant from Children First CEO America, every dollar raised by the Richmond foundation over the next three years will be matched dollar for dollar up to $250,000 per year. The impressive development of Children First Virginia was an inspiration to the school choice movement across the country, said Frank Riggs, a board member of both Children First Virginia and Children First CEO America.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia. George Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.