How to Energize Educatio

TED FORSTMANN & BRUCE KOVNER

Without competition, monopolies are free to impose high prices and shabby products on consumers.

Why did two businessmen get involved with school choice scholarships—private vouchers' to help 2,300 low-income students attend the schools of their choice in New York and Washington? Why didn't we just “adopt a school” or buy computers for classrooms, or simply write our checks to the public school system itself?

Talk to any of the more than 28,000 families that have applied for the 1,300 scholarships in New York and 1,000 scholarships in the District of Columbia and you'll get reasons enough. In New York, where only one in three third graders reads at grade level, a report by the Public Education Association said the promise of equal educational opportunity was a “hoax” for the mainly minority students in the city's worst schools. And in Washington, the financial control board concluded that the longer students stay in the public schools, the “less likely they are to succeed educationally.”

Many parents who have applied for a chance to send their children to private schools have lost faith in marginal reforms and lost patience with the pace of change. Why should we expect parents to wait, when we know that the rapidly changing knowledge-based economy won't wait for their children?

With our partners, we began these programs with only a few simple guidelines. Go where the need is greatest. Give what you can. Do it directly—give to needy families, not bureaucracies. And do it in the way that helps children out of a broken system, but also challenges that system to start making fundamental repairs.

Let's start with those fundamentals. Washington's new chief academic officer, Arlene Ackerman, said the city was “going to have to have a better customer service focus.” We applaud this sentiment. But to our view, “customers” exist in a marketplace. Customers, whether they're shopping for cars or cereal, are only customers because they can choose different options. When it comes to education, affluent parents can choose. Poor parents cannot.

In business, this is known as a monopoly. Without competition, monopolies are free to impose high prices and shabby products on consumers. Our government employs thousands of bureaucrats to bust monopolies in the marketplace. Yet the same government is intent on protecting its own monopoly in education. Apparently education “customers” don't count.

Supporting private scholarships does not mean opposing public schools. In fact, as The New York Times recently reported, the Albany public schools “quickly made sweeping changes” to restore community confidence in response to a private choice program. In so doing, “school officials seem to have inadvertently bolstered a central argument for vouchers: that they foster competition and thereby force public schools to improve.”

Another transformation takes place as well. Parents who have taken the dramatic step of changing their children's schools and invest some of their own resources to supplement their scholarships are in a position to demand and receive accountability. “People need to know they can walk away from bad schools,” Bill Clinton, then a Presidential candidate, said in a 1991 interview. “Choice changes the psychology of it.” True—not just for families, but for entire communities.

Today more than 30 such privately financed programs are percolating around the country, with another dozen on the way. Yet 42,000 families remain on waiting lists. How can we help these children, and millions of other low-income children, secure access to the best education?

A first step is for other people with resources to start scholarship programs in cities where the need is greatest. We challenge entrepreneurs to become social entrepreneurs—to apply the same concept of leveraging returns on their investments to education reform.

We know what is causing public education to fail poor families. We've seen what happens when consumers are denied choices in the market-place; we've seen what happens when individuals were denied basic freedoms overseas. Given these lessons, there is no excuse for indifference or inaction. It's time to step up to the plate.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Ted Forstmann & Bruce Kovner, “How to Energize Education,” New York Times, 3 January, 1998.

Reprinted by permission of Empower America.

THE AUTHOR

Ted Forstmann, senior partner of Forstmann Little & Company, is chairman of the Washington Scholarship Fund. Bruce Kovner, chairman of the Caxton Corporation, is chairman of the School Choice Scholarship Foundation in New York.

Copyright © 1998 Empower America


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