The Revolution in Education: School Choice

James P. Pinkerton is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. E-mail:

Andrew Grove calls it the "strategic inflection point." In calculus, an inflection comes when a curve crosses the line between positive and negative. But Grove, the chairman of Intel, uses the term to describe the moment "when change is so powerful that it fundamentally alters the way business is done."

The idea of an inflection point--the moment when everything changes--applies to public policy as well as to business and technology. In education, there have been two inflection points in the last half-century. The first came in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that public schools must be integrated "with all deliberate speed." The second came in 1983, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its famous report, "A Nation at Risk," which argued that if a foreign country had dumbed down American schools the way Americans had dumbed them down, it would have been viewed as "an act of war."

In the 15 years since, reform has piled upon reform, and inflation-adjusted per- pupil spending has risen by a third, totaling $300 billion annually for K-12 public education. And yet U.S. students, as measured in international tests, have actually lost ground. Just this February, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study found that U.S. high school seniors ranked 19th out of 21 countries surveyed. Education Secretary Richard Riley called the results "unacceptable," and President Clinton called for "a revolution" in math and science teaching.

But the revolution--what will prove to be the third strategic inflection point in postwar American education--won't come from Washington. Nor will it come from the eduocracy; history proves that the people who cause a problem are not the ones to solve it.

Theodore J. Forstmann, a New York City financier, has just inflected American education. On Tuesday, he and a group of co-moguls, including John Walton of Wal-Mart and Michael Ovitz, the former No. 2 mouse at Walt Disney, announced the creation of the Children's Scholarship Fund, which will raise $200 million to provide 50,000 private and parochial school "scholarships" to poor kids in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington over the next four years.

Why get excited over $200 million? Americans gave $150.7 billion to charity in 1996, according to Independent Sector, a Washington-based clearinghouse. Of that total, education received $18.8 billion.

But as the makers of the film "Godzilla" have discovered, size doesn't always matter. Poor quality, in schooling as well as in movie-making, can defeat even the most massive quantity of money. That tough lesson is now being learned by billionaire Walter Annenberg. In 1993, he committed some $500 million to improve the New York City public schools; yet his millions have disappeared with barely a trace, swallowed by the same Brezhnevified bureaucrats, crack-dealing principals and multicultural wackos who already squander the system's $9-billion annual budget.

Forstmann and his philanthropic partners are not out simply to augment endowments or have buildings named after them. They are out to change the way education works in America.

Forstmann says simply, "Competition makes you better." As befits a charity, the Children's Scholarship Fund shies away from the political implications of competition-based philanthropy. But the idea of privately financed choice in education naturally leads to the issue of publicly funded choice.

Indeed, eager to reclaim the education issue, Republicans in Washington and around the country have been pushing voucher and tax-credit legislation. Just Wednesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that poor children in a tiny pilot program in Milwaukee can in fact attend religious schools at taxpayer expense.

Democrats have mostly opposed such school choice, although the allegiance of a core constituency may be slipping away. No doubt mindful that their fellow District of Columbians, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, chose to send their kids to private schools, 62% of blacks polled recently by the Washington Post supported publicly funded vouchers. And according to U.S. News & World Report, Forstmann has talked with Colin Powell about leading a "million mothers' march" on Washington to dramatize the no-choice status quo.

Intel's Grove made a fortune by applying new science to old problems. Forstmann is willing to spend a fortune to do something more profound: apply a new vision to the archaic architecture of American education and thereby save a generation of poor kids from failure.

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