Philanthropy Pushes School Choice Forward

Published December 1, 2001

While efforts to improve the U.S. K-12 education system via competition-based reforms are regularly thwarted in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill, independent-minded philanthropists have nevertheless found ways to advance such reforms directly.

The most prevalent example of philanthropy advancing competition-based reform–“school choice”–is seen in the private voucher movement. Over 100 private voucher programs now serve more than 75,000 low-income students, thanks to generous individuals who believe all families should have the opportunity to choose their children’s schools.

John Kirtley

Many of these philanthropists grew weary of fighting for school choice reforms in legislative battles and decided to create and fund voucher programs directly. Some–like John Kirtley of Tampa, Florida–have put their money where their mouth is by creating a private voucher program, and still devote personal time and resources toward efforts to enact legislation that would provide school choice for all low-income families.

An intense 30-something entrepreneur who has competed in triathlons around the globe–and, more recently, has battled a rare heart condition–Kirtley seems to spend more time meeting with state legislators, governors, and community activists than with clients of his successful venture capital firm, Florida Capital Partners.

He helped push the Florida legislature to pass the first statewide publicly funded voucher program–which provides vouchers to students who attend failing public schools–as well as a corporate tax credit for businesses that provide funds to scholarship programs for low-income students. Recently, he single-handedly raised several million dollars from other Florida business leaders to expand the supply of private school seats for low-income voucher beneficiaries.

“Some business men and women put on blinders when they think of education,” notes Kirtley. “They operate in free market business environments and would be up in arms if that were threatened, but they don’t question why we have an essentially socialist delivery system for K-12 education.

“When I see the waste that results from this system, and more important the injustices to poor children, it burns my blood.”

Jack and Isabelle McVaugh

Several states to the west, Arizonans Jack and Isabelle McVaugh have also felt compelled to fight for better educational options for needy students. They have personally supplied vouchers to low-income children though charitable contributions, and have successfully lobbied Arizona state policymakers to allow others to do the same via tuition tax credit legislation.

After retiring to Arizona in 1992, the McVaughs heard about the philanthropic work of Indiana’s J. Patrick Rooney, who launched the first privately funded voucher program in 1991. With the help of State Senator Tom Patterson, the McVaughs started their own program for low-income families in Maricopa County, called the Arizona School Choice Trust (ASCT).

Soon after, working hand-in-hand with Patterson, they pushed other state legislators to support a tuition tax credit bill. While the McVaughs were not lobbyists per se, they were able to talk credibly about the high demand for tuition assistance they had encountered in the low-income community and the way scholarship organizations like theirs operated.

Arizona’s innovative tax credit program was enacted in 1997, allowing state taxpayers to claim dollar-for-dollar tax credits on donations they make to private voucher programs like ASCT. The ASCT served 100 students in 1998-1999, but by 2000-2001 it served more than 700 students, thanks to new donations inspired by the tax credit.

All told, the Arizona tuition tax credit has funneled over $32 million into organizations that have provided over 19,000 vouchers since 1997.

Philanthropists like Kirtley and the McVaughs provide welcome support to the school choice movement. Their resources, uncontrollable by political interests, provide proof of the promise of school choice reforms, while their community ties and standing give them access to policymakers that low-income families often do not have.

Kelly Amis is program director for The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, DC and a co-author of Making it Count: A Guide to High-Impact Education Philanthropy. Her email address is [email protected].