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Forstmann's Not So Little Idea
Thursday, November 10th, 2011 in Wall Street Journal
An almost incomprehensible 1.25 million families from some 22,000 U.S. cities and towns applied for the four-year scholarships. In New York City, 168,000 applied (about 30% of those eligible) for 2,500 scholarships. Nor were they seeking a free ride. The scholarships were typically for less than $2,000 a year, with the parents expected to pitch in perhaps half of that.
On announcement day, the fund awarded 40,000 scholarships. And Ted Forstmann took the occasion to say in public what he wanted to say about the state of education in the United States, circa 1999: "Some insist that if we would just keep doing more of what we have been doing—spend more money, hire more teachers and reduce class sizes—we will get different results. I don't believe that anymore."
He said one more thing that day worth recalling. It was about the $1,000 or so each scholarship family was kicking in: "Consider that $1,000 over four years from the parents of 1.25 million children adds up to $5 billion. Five billion dollars from families who have very little. Five billion in scrimping and savings, in second jobs and second-hand clothes, in basic necessities not bought, and countless other sacrifices made—simply to escape the system that they've been relegated to and to obtain a decent education for their children."
Mr. Forstmann thought the failure of the education status quo was so obvious and the need for change so dire (he called it "an appeal to the moral middle of America") that change of some sort would come soon to American public education. Needless to say, he was wrong. Change did not come to public, inner-city education. The teachers unions won't allow it, and the pols in the party they support value incumbency's power more than anyone's notion of a moral crisis.
Messrs. Forstmann and Walton persisted with their notion of reform. There's an old saw about commitment that I like, especially when money is on the line: in for a nickel, in for a dime. To date, the Children's Scholarship Fund has raised $483 million. It has disbursed scholarships to 123,000 students. It has affiliate programs in 33 states, which now administer the program on their own.
The imperative to be current requires that we interrupt this rare, good-news story to admit unsavory political issues. It has become difficult not to notice that the current American president is never so energized as when he is traveling the land denouncing "millionaires and billionaires." We are instructed to believe that the 1% are pillaging the 99%. Which is to say we are going to get a presidential election rooted in well-fertilized animosities of class and party. By contrast, Messrs. Forstmann and Walton (who died in 2005) concluded back then that percentage and party could be put to more productive use.