October 30, 2001

October 30, 2001 | Commentary on Education

Education: Lessons Learned

In many ways, the Sept. 11 attacks have brought out the best in Americans.

We've donated nearly $1 billion to help the victims' families. We gave so much blood so quickly that we temporarily overwhelmed the Red Cross. Without anyone asking, people from all over the country got in their cars and drove to New York and Washington to offer their help.

I wasn't the least bit surprised by this. Americans always have responded to crises in a big way.

Take the education crisis. A third of all fourth-grade students are functionally illiterate. The gap between rich and poor students persists, despite the expenditure of more than $120 billion by Washington alone since 1965. One quarter to a third of all students entering colleges and junior colleges need remedial courses before they can pursue their degrees.

Since the public school establishment refuses to take responsibility for this colossal failure, the public has stepped into the void. Two prominent foundations-Children First CEO America and the Children's Scholarship Fund-now provide money to students who want to escape failing public schools but can't afford to do so.

Children First CEO America operates in 70 cities in 36 states and the District of Columbia. The organization began in 1992 in Texas and now serves as a national clearinghouse for privately funded school vouchers. It started its 80th program this January-Children First Utah-with $2 million.

The Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF) began in Washington in 1997 with a $100 million donation from philanthropists John Walton (heir to the Wal-Mart fortune) and Ted Forstmann. It matches contributions from individuals across the country and has raised tens of millions of dollars to provide scholarships for low-income children.

Just this year, similar programs (some with CSF help) began in Colorado, Maine, New Mexico, Ohio and Indiana.

There's one problem: The programs work too well. Today, nearly 40,000 students attend more than 7,000 schools, thanks to CSF funding. But more than 1.25 million children have applied for scholarships. And even if enough funding existed to help all 1.25 million kids go to the schools of their choice, there wouldn't be enough room in those schools.

Breaking the education establishment's stranglehold on schooling is a multi-front war, of course. There are many good ideas and new approaches, which are discussed in the 2001 edition of The Heritage Foundation's annual "School Choice" guidebook. The newly released book (available online at www.heritage.org/research/education/schoolchoice) includes good news on a number of fronts.

For example, the number of children attending charter schools has doubled in the past two years. More than half a million children are attending independently run charter schools in 34 states and the District of Columbia, twice the number we had in 1999.

Yes, Americans know a crisis when they see one, and they know when the stakes are high. "The realization of democracy is tied up in our struggle to educate our children," writes Howard Fuller, a former Milwaukee school superintendent, in "School Choice 2001." "The more children we educate, the better our chances of sustaining and deepening that democracy." And the better our chances of perpetuating what's best about America.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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