This year, lawmakers in seven states followed West Virginia and Arizona in creating broadly available education-choice programs. Millions of parents will soon be able to use state funds to send their child to a school of their choice or to access an education savings account to customize their education. These historic changes are the culmination of a national movement that began a quarter-century ago, with the creation of the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF).
On June 9, 1998, philanthropists Theodore Forstmann and John Walton pledged to donate $100 million to provide scholarships for thousands of disadvantaged kids to enroll in private school. The fund attracted additional contributions from other generous donors. Andrew Young, Martin Luther King III, and Dorothy Height joined the fund’s board, along with other national leaders, politicians, and entrepreneurs. By the following spring, the Children’s Scholarship Fund had raised nearly $200 million for scholarships, enough to provide partial scholarships for 40,000 children. Altogether, more than 1.25 million children applied.
To be eligible, children had to qualify for the national school lunch program. Parents would pay $1,000 matching contributions to receive the scholarships—meaning that more than 1 million of the nation’s neediest families had committed to spending $1 billion out of pocket to give their children a chance to get a better education. In New York City, nearly 30 percent of the eligible population applied.
Since 1998, CSF and its partner organizations have awarded tuition scholarships to more than 200,000 children. One lucky recipient was Jason Tejada, who received a scholarship in fourth grade that allowed him to attend Incarnation School in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Tejada thrived in private school, even as he was undergoing treatment for cancer. “Because of the scholarship, I got a second family,” he explains, crediting his teachers with creating high expectations and giving him a sense of agency. He then earned scholarships to attend a private high school and, later, Columbia University. Now working as an executive at a prominent Wall Street bank, Tejada credits the scholarship fund for making the difference in his life: “My family knows what it means to see intergenerational poverty interrupted at the hands of a good education.”
The Children’s Scholarship Fund helped launch a national movement. “The classical liberal tradition in America has fostered three major movements of empowerment, and is poised for a fourth,” John Walton explained at the scholarship awards ceremony in 1999. “The labor movement empowered workers to achieve fair wages and working conditions. The suffrage movement empowered women to achieve political equality. And the civil rights movement empowered minorities to achieve social equality.” The new movement, said Walton, would be to “empower low-income parents to achieve a better education for their children.”
At first, CSF inspired similar privately funded scholarship programs in cities across the country. The fund was not focused on activism, but many of the philanthropists involved or drawn to the cause of providing tuition scholarships for children expanded their ambitions: they wanted to reform public education by giving parents greater ability to choose their children’s schools.
Before CSF’s launch, cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland and states like Arizona had programs that helped some families choose private schools, and some states offered charter schools. But the overwhelming majority of American children went to public schools based on their residence. As a result, children from lower-income families had fewer chances to learn in high-quality schools.
Today, more than half of states have publicly funded programs to help parents choose alternatives to the traditional, residentially assigned public-school system. All but five states now have public charter schools—now totaling 7,800 campuses serving more than 3 million children. Thirteen states offer publicly funded K-12 education savings accounts that give parents direct control over spending on tuition, tutoring, and other expenses.
Public support for parental choice has grown in the aftermath of pandemic-driven school closures; nine states have instituted broad new programs, and dozens of others are considering school-choice legislation. The national movement that Forstmann and Walton created has gone mainstream.
Millions of kids will now have a chance, as Jason Tejada did, to reach their potential. It’s hard to imagine it happening without the Children’s Scholarship Fund.
Photo: Jinda Noipho/iStock