Helping America's poor gain a private education

October 14, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

WASHINGTON -- The luncheon was scheduled for a 12: 30 p.m. start, but the attendees arrived early, bantering in chorus with the clatter of silverware and dishes.

At precisely 1 p.m. -- just in time for television cameras to roll -- Ted Forstmann strode to the podium at the event at the National Press Club a few weeks ago. He slid on his glasses and peered down at his notes.

The co-founder and chairman of Forstmann Little and Co. was about to tell those assembled why he had given $100 million of his money to the Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF) -- which will award scholarships ranging from $600 to $1,600 to 35,000 poor children nationwide in 1999 to attend private schools.

Forstmann began by telling the tales of two Washington women -- Bernice Gates and Kim Rogers. Gates is a recovering alcoholic and a single mother of six children. She applied for and was awarded scholarships for her children in Forstmann's initial venture in helping poor inner-city students -- a program that began in Washington last year. The scholarship money wasn't enough to cover the full tuition for her children, so Gates worked extra jobs to pay the difference.

Rogers fretted not about the cancer cursing her body but for her two children who attended public schools in the nation's capital.

"She feared for their safety," Forstmann said. The experiences of Gates and Rogers, the businessman turned philanthropist continued, showed him how much mothers wanted to send their children to private schools.

Forstmann denied being anti-public education.

"The distinction is not between public and private education," he contended. "It's between good education and an education that is so bad it amounts to no education at all."

Forstmann has built up support for his effort that seems downright bipartisan. We should take heed here. So little is bipartisan these days. But among supporters of the CSF are President Clinton, Senate majority leader Trent Lott, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Sitting on CSF's national board of advisers are Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, former U.N. ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and SCLC president Martin Luther King III.

King was seated just to the right of the head table. He wasn't bashful in expressing his optimism about CSF's mission to help America's poorest children.

"This gives young people whom I characterize as the least of God's children an opportunity they would not have," King said. "Since this is a private venture, it's not a voucher. This effort can be an impetus and a catalyst for others. This can grow, and if it grows quickly, it creates the possibility of public education growing much quicker."

The private education vs. public education competition was a central theme of Forstmann's speech, which he entitled "How Competition Can Save American Education." During the question-and-answer period, one query wondered if CSF's efforts would "undercut public education."

"I don't believe competition undercuts anything worthwhile," Forstmann responded. Public education, according to Forstmann, is an "aging, creaking monopoly" that needs competition.

Someone else noted that parochial schools -- whose success Forstmann highlighted -- have succeeded because of dedicated instructors with a passion for religion. Could such teachers be found for public schools?

"Where would we find enough nuns?" Forstmann quipped.

Another questioner observed that private schools don't have to open their books to the public and can admit whom they choose. How are these private schools to be held accountable?

"Wow, it's hard to give away your money these days," Forstmann answered, incurring roars of laughter and applause from the crowd. But Forstmann quickly turned serious again, giving an answer brimming with so much common sense and wisdom that it applies to students in both public schools and private.

"I assume," Forstmann said, "the people who will do the accounting are the parents."

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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