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Business People: Armchair Critics on Education?

by Molly Conklin

Business people, in my opinion, have been relegated to the position of armchair critics. Very seldom do they ever get out of the office and actually get informed enough to understand what some of the deeper challenges are in today’s public education system.

—Elaine Wynn

bviously Elaine Wynn has never met Ted Forstmann or John Walton. Both are extremely successful businessmen. Both know about the deeper challenges of the public education system. Both are single-handedly doing something about it. Many thousands of low-income families can now send their children to the schools of their choice thanks to the generosity of these two people—two people Wynn bets don’t understand the challenges facing public education.

The Children’s Scholarship Fund, Forstmann’s latest venture into private funding of education reform, was launched in early June. After serving as chairman of the Washington Scholarship Fund, he launched this $200 million campaign that will serve cities nationwide. At least 50,000 children will be awarded privately funded scholarships in time to begin the 1999 school year. Pretty good for an "armchair critic."

There is little argument that public education in America needs a makeover. The educational establishment and teacher unions have held a monopoly over low-income families for decades. Educrats have worked overtime to block voucher and school choice programs in communities all over the country. Business people like Forstmann and John Walton, heir to Wal-Mart, have had enough of the gridlock. They are working with other private donors to give families a choice. They are helping schools and students, one voucher at a time.

Privately funded school-choice programs number over 30 today. Each works to provide financial assistance to low-income children for education in private or parochial schools. The average annual income of participating families is $18,000. Milwaukee’s PAVE program leads the pack, serving over 4,600 children. Programs in San Antonio, Los Angeles, New York and Indianapolis are slightly smaller, serving one or two thousand students. Many others serve from 30 to several hundred. Forstmann’s Children’s Scholarship Fund is the first to target local partners in cities all over the United States. These "partners" are the business people who have been relegated to "armchair critics," don’t forget.

The scholarships themselves typically fund 30 to 60 percent of the school tuition. They are awarded on a sliding scale, depending on need and averaging about $1,200. There are qualifications that the children must meet, including residential zones, participation in the school lunch program and expected entry into grades below high school. Responsible for the remaining costs are the parents, many of whom are assisted by churches or neighborhood groups. In Washington, D.C., approximately 75 percent of the children participating in the Washington Scholarship Fund program come from single-parent homes.

In Nevada, school reform is almost nonexistent. Most recently, Senate Bill 220 was passed as our "landmark" charter school measure. Charter schools are funded to operate within the public system under contracts based on the school’s mission, but are released from a few regulations. In its original form SB 220 was a carefully written piece of public policy that had the support of parents, administrators and even the teacher union. In the last days of the 1997 legislative session, the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) and Assemblyman Wendell Williams (D-Las Vegas) succeeded in amending the law to mandate collective bargaining for charter school teachers, ensuring the threshold numbers for union members and demanding the same regulatory overburden as any other public school. Nevada’s citizens have found out the hard way how un-charter-like the charter school law was. Only one entity has applied for a charter so far. Voucher programs are not in the works.

Still, some business people in Nevada don’t believe in the Forstmann-Walton model of educational philanthropy. Elaine Wynn opposes privately supported education saying, "Public education should not be market-driven because what happens is that the product that becomes inferior is a human product, it’s not a widget or a gadget, it’s a kid that falls through the cracks." When asked what would truly improve the system, Wynn argues for financing public education through taxation on private businesses. She says she and her husband, casino magnate Steve Wynn, spend tremendous sums training and retraining their employees. But this throw-more-taxpayer-money-at-the-problem approach has proven ineffective in the past. New York spends twice as much money per student as Nevada, and ranks 43rd out of the 50 states in graduation rates—not much higher than the Silver State’s dead-last ranking.

Private business owners need to reenergize education in Nevada. They have the opportunity to directly invest money into programs like Forstmann’s and Walton’s rather than waiting for change to happen. Giving money to needy families instead of bureaucracies will be education’s saving grace. It will help children out of a broken system, and challenge that system to start making fundamental repairs.

Janet Beales of the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles captures the essence of this philosophy in a policy study written in 1993: "Many of the privately supported school-choice programs were established by individuals and foundations who believe strongly in the principles of school choice: that parents, including low-income parents, should have the right to choose a school for their children; and that a competitive market of schools would serve children better than an education monopoly."

"Armchair critics," take note. u

Molly Conklin is on assignment at NPRI from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Children’s Scholarship Fund
(212) 614-4795
Children’s Educational Opportunities Foundation
(501) 273-6957
The National Scholarship Center
(202) 842-1355
293-7893 Fax


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