Public Failure, Private Response

Private Scholarships Help Provide an Alternative to Public Education

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

President Bill Clinton has called for a “national crusade” on education. Naturally, that means spending more money: he would have Washington hire teachers and build schools. Many states, flush with cash, also plan to spend more.

But the problem of education is monopoly, not money. Average SAT scores dropped from 980 to 899 between 1963 and 1992, while real per-pupil spending rose 160 percent. In fact, real spending per pupil has risen 40 percent a decade since World War II.

The past decade of “reforms” has changed nothing. The 1994 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test found that 36 percent of fourth graders, 39 percent of eighth graders, and 57 percent of 12th graders failed to meet basic history standards. In most other subjects students perform poorly, and, incredibly, do worse the longer they stay in school. Last year the journal Education Week called America’s public schools “rife with mediocrity,” reporting that “there is no state in which at least half the students perform at the ‘proficient’ level or above.” It refused to give the states grades based on their NAEP results, since “all would have failed.”

International comparisons tell an equally dismal story, with American students scoring below foreign kids in almost every subject. The latest survey, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, ranked America 19th out of 21 countries in math, surpassing only Cyprus and South Africa. (No Asian nations, whose students typically do well, participated.)

While suburban schools have problems, city schools are in crisis. The Carnegie Foundation declared a decade ago: “The failure to educate adequately urban children is a shortcoming of such magnitude that many people have simply written off city schools as little more than human storehouses to keep young people off the streets.”

Half of urban kids typically fail to graduate. The diplomas for students who do graduate have the value of Czarist bonds. As of 1997, reports the NAEP, only 40 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders in urban schools score at the basic level for math, reading, and science.

Of course, the educational establishment’s mantra remains “more money.” But the public schools are doomed to mediocrity. Admitted the late Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers: “It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve; it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”

What education needs is more competition. Private schools cost about half as much as public ones and achieve significantly better results.

Alas, serious reform has been blocked by the educational establishment, or “the Blob,” as William Bennett calls it, which is more concerned about protecting interest groups pigging out at the educational trough than children who are drowning in it. The very people who require the poor to send their kids to dangerous schools exercise choice. Members of city school boards routinely send their children to private institutions. Public school teachers are four times as likely as other parents with comparable incomes to send their children to private schools.

A growing number of supporters of educational choice have launched a flanking maneuver around the special interests: private scholarships. Roughly three dozen private scholarship programs currently serve some 20,000 students nationwide. Another 42,000 students are on waiting lists.

Pat Rooney, chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Company, helped spark this movement in 1991 by establishing the Educational Choice Charitable Trust (CHOICE) in Indianapolis, which in 1997 offered 1,094 scholarships of up to $800 to low-income families. The latest initiative came last April, when the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation announced a ten-year, $50 million program for children in San Antonio’s Edgewood district. The goal is to provide a scholarship for every one of the nearly 14,000 students, more than half of whom live below the poverty line.

In 1997, the School Choice Scholarships Foundation, a group of foundations, philanthropists, and Wall Street firms, offered 1,300 scholarships worth $1,400 each, to be distributed by lottery: 22,700 kids applied. The decade-old Student Sponsor Partnerships provides full tuition for more than 900 students to attend parochial schools, and Operation Exodus offers 100 scholarships for students in New York and other states. The New York Catholic Archdiocese’s Inner-City Scholarship Fund helps subsidize a network of schools that educate largely poor students.

The District of Columbia’s Washington Scholarship Fund began in 1993 by aiding 36 students in 12 schools. In late 1997 entrepreneurs Ted Forstmann and John Walton set aside $6 million for an additional 1,000 scholarships to pay half of annual tuition up to $1,700. An incredible 7,573 students, one in every six who is eligible, and one-tenth of the entire D.C. student population, applied.

The Children’s Educational Opportunities (CEO) Foundation of Southern California supported 799 kids in Los Angeles and Orange counties; 5,000 more were on waiting lists. The Los Angeles Archdiocese Education Foundation has been awarding scholarships for its parochial schools since 1988. The Pacific Research Institute of San Francisco plans to award 100 scholarships of $2,000 each this year.

Chicago has four separate private programs. One, the FOCUS Fund (Family Options for Children Urban Scholarship Fund), offered 30 noncompetitive scholarships for any private school last fall. The Daniel Murphy Scholarship Foundation works with 36 schools and has provided 80 scholarships this year. Link Unlimited, in operation since 1966, provides 230 scholarships for Catholic schools. The Big Shoulders Fund works with inner-city parochial schools and awards nearly $1 million in scholarships annually.

There are other programs in Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Battle Creek, Bridgeport, Buffalo, Chicago, Dallas, Dayton, Denver, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Houston, Jackson (Mississippi), Jersey City, Knoxville, Little Rock, Midland (Texas), Milwaukee, Newark, Oakland, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Schenectady, Seattle, and Washington Heights (New York). The opportunities for further expansion are obviously enormous. In fact, CEO America, headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas, assists people and organizations interested in setting up their own programs.

Such private programs offer a glimmer of hope to children and families trapped in a failing public monopoly. Political reform remains important, but advocates of children need not wait for politicians to act. Indeed, developing successful private scholarship programs will not only help struggling students; it will also make real political change more likely. Instead of pouring their money and energy into failing public schools-as did publisher Walter Annenberg with $500 million in 1993—businessmen, foundations, and philanthropists should develop alternative private educational options.

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