Putting Children First

Fritz Steiger
Cofounder and President, CEO America

Fritz SteigerFritz Steiger, former director of the Wal-Mart Foundation and cofounder of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, is also cofounder and current president of CEO America. This nonprofit organization has helped establish or expand nearly 70 private voucher programs. Mr. Steiger holds a degree from the University of Arkansas.

A lively panel session during the February 1999 Shavano Institute seminar in Atlanta, Georgia, focused on many aspects of the educational choice movement, including the advantages and disadvantages of public vouchers. (Hillsdale College opposes them on the grounds that the government will inevitably use them to control private schools; Ms.Gilder and Mr. Steiger support them and contend that there are sufficient safeguards to prevent this.) Space does not permit a full consideration of the debate here. Instead, we present edited excerpts from a portion of the session that was devoted to something we can all agree upon: the great benefit of private vouchers.

Since the 1980s private businessmen have tried to address the problems of public education by pouring millions of dollars into failing inner-city schools, but to no avail. Then in 1991 J. Patrick Rooney, a Midwestern insurance executive, decided that he would do something extraordinary. He would bypass all red tape associated with the usual reform initiatives and directly offer low-income children in Indianapolis the chance to go to whatever private school they and their parents chose. Specifically, he would put up $800 in tuition money for each student. Parents would be responsible for the rest.

He formed the Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust and on August 2, 1991 announced that 750 scholarships would be available. In a little over three days, he received 2,000 applications. Dr. James R. Leininger, a physician and businessman, sent me a copy of an August 1991 Wall Street Journal editorial about Rooney. Across the top, he had written, “San Antonio needs one of these.” We founded the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation (popularly known as CEO San Antonio) in April 1992. It adopted the same model as the CHOICE program: Scholarships were granted on a first-come, first-served basis to low-income children. Their parents had the freedom to choose the school and the responsibility of paying half the tuition.

We raised funds from executives who were tired of giving money to “fix” public schools through well-intended but largely ineffective mentoring programs, computer giveaways, and the like. These executives were also tired of having to re-train employees who lacked the basic skills that should have been acquired in the classroom.

In the same month in which we launched our program, a Wall Street Journal editorial appeared on “Grass Roots Choice.” CEO San Antonio was mentioned and so were two other private voucher programs we hadn’t heard of: the Children’s Educational Foundation in Atlanta, sponsored by insurance executive Henry F. McCamish, Jr., and Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE) in Milwaukee, sponsored by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and local businesses.

We realized that there was an urgent need for an organization that would serve not only as a national clearinghouse of information on existing voucher programs but also as a consultant and guide for starting new ones. People from all over were calling to say, “We love what you’re doing! How can we do the same thing in our own area?”

With the timely aid of a Texas donor, we set up speaking tours and produced a “how-to” video on private vouchers. The results were encouraging. By 1993 we had helped start seven new voucher programs in cities such as Washington, D.C., Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles. By 1994 our expanded operation, CEO America, had won a $2 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation. This allowed us to help increase the number of existing voucher programs to 23 in 1995, 29 in 1996, 30 in 1997, 41 in 1998, and 67 in 1999.

During these years we were also able to offer “challenge grants” —matching dollar for dollar the donations from individuals and organizations—for a total of $8 million and to initiate a $50 million, ten-year voucher program in San Antonio’s Edgewood Independent School District. Challenge grants are an ingenious way to spread private vouchers like wildfire. As of mid-1999, individuals and organizations across America have invested over $300 million in private scholarships for more than 100,000 students.

Years ago, University of Chicago Professor Richard Weaver observed that “ideas have consequences.”

J. Patrick Rooney’s idea turned into a little experiment in freedom—then into something that has grown so large that it can no longer be called an experiment. It is the wave of the future.