Scholarships, not vouchers

October 23, 1997|By James P. Pinkerton

SOMETIMES revolutions come in small packages. Consider Ciara Watkins, 10. Her mother, Lora, recalls that Ciara was picked on at her Washington public school and that ''the teacher didn't have any control.'' Now she attends a parochial school, and is ''much happier.''

Elizabeth Melchor is 15. Her mother, Josefina, witnessed ''some really bad things'' at the D.C. public high school Elizabeth was assigned to attend. But now she goes to a private school. ''Sometimes my daughter says, 'This is too strict, this is too hard','' recalls Ms. Melchor. But those are the sort of benign problems most parents wish they had.

For affluent Americans, improving their child's school is no big deal. Most school districts have some sort of magnet or choice system; if that doesn't suffice, well-off parents can always send children to private schools.

But what if most, if not all, of the schools in a given district are bad? The District of Columbia Financial Control Board, established to repair the damage done by Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., did a study of D.C.'s schools: ''In virtually every area, and for every grade level, the system has failed to provide our children with a quality education and a safe environment in which to learn.''

That was last November. Since then, bureaucrats have been reshuffled, but few believe learning has improved. Despite a per-pupil expenditure as high as $12,000 a year, the D.C. schools opened three weeks late this fall; roofs kept caving in.

So what happens to poor and working-class D.C. kids, as well as to millions of others trapped in systems that are little better? ''They don't have much of a chance,'' observes Theodore J. Forstmann, a Wall Street investor. After three decades in which he amassed a fortune by shaking up sleepy corporations, Mr. Forstmann, 57, decided that the same direct approach could bugle the education bureaucracy out of an even deeper torpor.

So he and John Walton, of the Wal-Mart Waltons, each contributed $3 million to the Washington Scholarship Fund, the charity that has already enabled Ciara Watkins and Elizabeth Melchor to seek a better future. The number of students receiving ''scholarships'' from the fund will jump from 470 now to 1,500 next year.

Immediacy

The power of the Forstmann-Walton approach is its immediacy. Instead of offering tedious speeches followed by legislative logrolling, the two philanthropists are just doing it -- making a difference, child by child. And every kid who chooses to leave the public schools spotlights the well-financed bankruptcy of the status quo.

By contrast, Walter H. Annenberg, the former owner of TV Guide, has pledged far more -- $500 million -- in aid to urban public schools. And yet, as the Washington Post reported, Mr. Annenberg's money, "scattered from New York to Los Angeles, is so tangled in the politics of big-city school systems, so divided among so many groups for so many purposes, that overall the benefits may be marginal.'' Even smart people of good will can drown in the morass of administrators, union bosses and other pork-barrel promoters.

In such swamps, counter-productivity is the norm. In New York City, Rudy Crew, the iron chancellor, has had enough of independence; in imposing minimum-size requirements -- making sure schools are not too small -- he is undoing the very innovations that Mr. Annenberg financed.

Coincidentally, congressional Republicans are pushing a $7 million voucher program for the district. Liberal groups are outraged: People for the American Way screams that vouchers ''would harm D.C. public schools.'' Such a statement may be stupefying in light of the reality of those schools, but at least it clarifies that organization's chief concern, the maintenance of the bureaucratic system.

Yet the Republican plan is doomed, since President Clinton, who sent his child to a private school in the district, has pledged to veto any voucher legislation that might reach his desk.

But Mr. Forstmann and Mr. Walton aren't waiting. They seek to leverage the conscience of the nation. ''I hope others will follow,'' Mr. Forstmann says simply. That's the challenge to American philanthropy: to fund the cutting edge of reform, not simply to pick up the tab for the current complacent stagnation.

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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