The effort to bring choice to American education hit a milestone yesterday. A group of 35 business and political leaders announced in Washington a plan to distribute $172 million in scholarships to enable more than 35,000 children to attend schools of their choice. Rather than merely wait for public schools to improve, these civic leaders have decided the time has come to shake up the education system by encouraging competitive forces.
The Children's Scholarship Fund (reachable at 800-805-KIDS) is the brainchild of Ted Forstmann, the chairman of Gulfstream Aerospace, and John Walton, a director of Wal-Mart Stores. Three months ago, the two men committed $100 million to set up scholarship programs in 38 cities. Since then, they have raised an additional $72 million from like-minded reformers. They have also recruited a stellar and diverse Board of Directors.
It includes civil-rights leaders such as Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Floyd Flake. Former Democratic Cabinet officials Henry Cisneros and Joe Califano have signed on, as has Miami Heat coach Pat Riley and Roger Staubach. So too have Democratic Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan, John Breaux and former Senator Sam Nunn. Business leaders such as Dick DeVos of Amway, James Kimsey of America On line, Peter Lynch of Fidelity, Julian Robertson and Stedman Graham are on board. The board also includes such universally respected figures as Barbara Bush and Colin Powell.
Mr. Forstmann says this breadth of support demonstrates "the agreement many people have that we need equal opportunity and a competitive environment in education." The need for competition was brought home to him during his involvement with the Big Brother program. He found that while only 30% of students in public schools went to college, more than 90% of those from parochial schools did. Nor were the two groups of students radically different. Nearly nine out of 10 New York City parochial school students were minorities and more than 60% came from single-parent households.
Mr. Forstmann believes public education can be strengthened in much the same way that competition has improved consumer products. He notes that any system that can enforce a 90% market share has overly monopolistic characteristics. "We have thousands of bureaucrats worrying about the harm private monopolies do," he says. "But how many people worry about the harmful effects that a public school monopoly can have?"
The answer could be found in last week's record attendance at the annual Washington meeting of CEO America, the umbrella group that sponsors scholarship programs supported by private donations in more than 40 cities. Organizers clearly feel that the political zeitgeist has shifted toward choice, a move symbolized by the fact that a National Education Association vice president monitored the conference.
Only a few years ago, school choice was considered a radical concept embraced by politicians at their peril. That's changing, but it's a sign of the times that a group of mostly private citizens such as Mr. Forstmann and Mr. Walton have assembled are so far ahead of the curve than either the politicians or the education establishment.