Choice Scholarships Spark Rush for Exit

Published June 1, 1999

The Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) was deluged with applications for the 40,000 four-year scholarships the organization made available for distribution by lottery to children from poor families in kindergarten though eighth grade.

In the six months since entrepreneur Theodore J. Forstmann and investor John Walton launched their philanthropic effort to the public, CSF received 1,237,360 applications from more than 22,000 communities across America, from every state in the Union, and from 90 percent of all counties.

Such a huge demand for scholarships is remarkable in itself. But even more remarkable is that each of the applicants represents a poor family vying to spend $1,000 a year of its own money for the next four years on a child’s education at a nonpublic school. The scholarship applicant families have an average income of less than $22,000 a year. Their willingness to commit $1,000 a year represents a significant financial sacrifice to release their child from a public school system that is available to them for free.

In total, the applicants were willing to put up almost $5 billion for a better education for their children.

“In anybody’s book, that is an amazing demonstration of dissatisfaction with the present system–and demand for alternatives,” said Forstmann, noting that he and Walton had started the scholarship program in the hope of changing the lives of children who were “trapped in dangerous, dead-end schools.”

“We could not have imagined that it would be the children who would end up changing the way we must think about education, fundamentally and from now on,” he said. “This is a moment of moral reckoning, brought on not by a march or a movement, but by 1.25 million children.”

Citing the failure of public education reforms to improve student performance, Forstmann called for a radical expansion of choice and opportunity in education to create a more competitive marketplace where parents could seek out the best schools for their children. For parents, he said, the issue is not public versus private education, but good versus bad education.

Opponents of school choice questioned the sincerity of Forstmann and Walton’s stated good intentions, dismissing the scholarship initiative as more about advancing the cause of publicly funded vouchers than about improving education for the poor.

“This is not about helping poor children. It’s about advancing the efforts to privatize education,” said Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The anti-voucher organization People for the American Way (PFAW) issued a report on April 20, the day before CSF awarded its scholarships, claiming that CSF and CEO America were “interlocking national organizations created to link private philanthropists to efforts to promote the privatization of America’s public schools.” The PFAW report insinuated that the real motives behind the private scholarship effort were profit-making and advancing the agenda of the “Religious Right.” CSF’s efforts, alleged PFAW, “weaken the public schools and put even more children at risk.”

That was too much for Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, an educational foundation that supports an alliance of conservative Jews and Christians. Lapin condemned PFAW for hatefully defaming the benevolence of two generous men.

“According to the Torah, parents, not the government, should determine the type of education that their children should receive,” he said, noting that Forstmann and Walton had provided “genuine educational opportunity to many less fortunate parents.”

“Only a far-left, anti-child organization could accuse generous philanthropists of foul play,” said Lapin, who added that, with its wild accusations, PFAW had lost its claim to being a “non-biased watchdog agency.”

Forstmann and Walton discovered a “huge demand for quality education” among low-income parents last year when they created the Washington Scholarship Fund. Over a 16-week application period for 1,000 scholarships, the Fund received 7,573 applications, representing 17 percent of the eligible population in Washington, DC. That experience led to the creation of CSF.

When critics of CSF’s efforts have suggested that charitable donations be given to public schools rather than parents, Forstmann has responded that the financial commitments businesses have made to many public schools have had little discernable effect.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.