The Public Revolution Private Money Could Cause

Sunday, January 30, 2000

American education is in the midst of a revolution. In another decade or two, we’ll look back at the present period as a truly pivotal time—and at certain events that were especially influential. One of them began two summers ago, when businessmen Theodore Forstmann and John Walton announced the creation of the Children’s Scholarship Fund to provide poor urban students in grades K–8 with scholarships—privately funded vouchers—so they might attend the private school of their choice.

Forstmann and Walton each donated $50 million. They then raised $70 million from donors in forty-three participating cities and put together a board of directors of leading figures from both political parties. In the meantime, they orchestrated an aggressive media outreach campaign—including public service announcements by baseball star Sammy Sosa and poet Maya Angelou and an appearance by Forstmann on the Oprah Winfrey Show—to spread the word about the program and attract applicants from around the country.

Last April, the Children’s Scholarship Fund held lotteries in those forty-three cities, and forty thousand low-income children were chosen randomly from the pool of applicants to receive scholarships beginning in the fall. The eligibility requirements vary from city to city. The vouchers allow these children—most of whom are in inner-city public schools—to search for better alternatives in the private sector. This is a wonderful thing for these children, and forty thousand is a big number. But consider this: More than a million disadvantaged students applied for the vouchers—44 percent of the forty-six thousand students eligible in Baltimore applied by phone, by mail, or on-line, according to the fund, as did one-third of those eligible in New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Washington. This stunning development is an undeniable indicator of the tremendous pent-up demand among the poor for new educational opportunities.

These families are not just responding to an offer of free money. The vouchers range in value from $600 to $1,700, which is less than most private school tuition. Tuition at elementary Catholic and other religious schools—which most of these kids will presumably attend—is about $2,000 nationwide. To make up the difference, a family must come up with roughly $1,000, on average. The program is designed this way to make families stakeholders in the effort, even though it may be difficult for them financially: The average income of recipient families is $18,000 to $20,000 a year.

I am not poor. But as a parent, I have experienced the need for school choice firsthand. My daughter found her public high school in Palo Alto too big and impersonal, and she simply turned off to academic work. Eventually, she transferred to a local private school that is small and informal, and now she is thriving. This story had a happy ending, however, only because I had enough money to exercise choice. Why shouldn’t everyone be able to do the same—especially the poor, who need it most?

The Children’s Scholarship Fund is a bold attempt to do something about this. It is not the only private voucher program, just the biggest. The idea was pioneered by J. Patrick Rooney, who set up the first program in Indianapolis in 1991—and created a fast-growing movement. Besides the Children’s Scholarship Fund, there are forty-one private programs providing about thirteen thousand inner-city kids with scholarships. Even as such programs continue to grow, however, they cannot hope to bring new opportunities to more than a tiny portion of those who want them. Only the government can do that. The obvious question is, Why shouldn’t the government provide the inner-city poor with education vouchers?

If you ask the people who are most affected, you won’t get any argument. In poll after poll, the strongest supporters of publicly financed vouchers are blacks, Hispanics, and the poor, especially in urban areas. It is no accident, moreover, that the only two publicly financed voucher programs in the nation—one in Milwaukee (beginning in 1990), the other in Cleveland (1996)—are targeted at the poor in cities known for low-performing public schools. Both programs are hugely popular with parents.

Why don’t we have more of these programs? There are two major reasons. The first is that vouchers threaten the established interests in public education, particularly teachers’ unions. They don’t want any students or resources leaving the public system, and they see vouchers as their worst nightmare. They have used their considerable clout as contributors to Democratic campaigns to insist that their allies vote no every time the issue comes up—which virtually all Democrats have done.

There is a tremendous pent-up demand among the poor for new educational opportunities. School vouchers meet that demand.

The second is that the NAACP and most other civil rights groups have clung to their traditional view—too often a valid one in the distant past—that school choice leads to more segregation, as whites flee minorities. They have long put their trust in government controls, and they have weighed in against vouchers even when proposals are designed to assist the inner-city poor.

This power lineup has turned the usual alliances in American politics upside down. The inner-city poor are typically represented in education politics by Democrats, civil rights groups, and teachers’ unions. But their "representatives" fiercely oppose them where vouchers are concerned. As a result, the urban poor have turned to Republicans, conservatives, and business groups—who usually oppose them on social issues but sometimes support them on vouchers. This is the new politics of education, in which the progressives defend a failing status quo and the conservatives battle for change on behalf of the poor.

So far, opponents have been powerful enough to defeat vouchers almost every time. But the exceptions—Milwaukee and Cleveland—have proven enormously influential and have increased the pressure for vouchers elsewhere. The opponents have been helpless to stop the proliferation of private voucher programs, which is expanding the urban constituency for vouchers and generating hard evidence for policymakers that these programs can indeed work.

The opponents will keep winning most of the public voucher battles for a while, but this won’t last for long. Here is what to expect in the years ahead:

  • Support for vouchers will continue to grow in the inner cities as voucher programs—especially private ones—spread. Low-income parents won’t be willing to wait for public school reforms that are supposedly just around the corner but never come—or never work. They will demand new educational opportunities now—which is just what vouchers give them.

  • Growing numbers of Democrats will support vouchers. Democrats are already terribly uncomfortable opposing the inner-city poor and defending school systems that the people themselves want to leave. As vouchers catch on, many Democrats will escape the unions’ grip and move back to their traditional constituency among the poor.

  • Eventually, civil rights groups will switch sides. They are already under pressure from their grass-roots constituents to reevaluate their position on vouchers. This will only intensify in the years ahead. Once civil rights groups embrace vouchers, the unions will be isolated and the game will be over. The civil rights groups will then hold the balance of power in voucher politics and will have tremendous influence in the design and location of voucher programs. This is another reason for them to jump in with both feet and earlier rather than later.

I’m convinced that the fight for inner-city vouchers is destined to succeed. It will bring new opportunities to millions of disadvantaged children and new vitality to urban public schools—which will henceforth have to perform at a higher standard to keep students. My guess, moreover, is that other families, wherever they live, will want the same opportunities and that the momentum for change will naturally move well beyond the inner city—and transform the rest of the education system.

The Children’s Scholarship Fund is a harbinger of all this. It is history in the making.