Want Better Public Education? Support Private Vouchers

Virginia Gilder
Chairman, Empire Foundation for Policy Research

Virginia GilderVirginia Gilder is an investor, political activist, and philanthropist with a long-standing interest in educational innovation, the visual arts, and historic preservation. A graduate of Columbia University, she is also chairman of the Empire Foundation for Policy Research and founder and trustee of the Hickory Foundation.

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.

Over the last ten years, I have read a great deal about the educational choice movement, and I have been particularly inspired by the successes of two individuals.*

[* In March 1992 Imprimis featured essays by A. Polly Williams and J. Patrick Rooney. —Eds.]

The first is Wisconsin Democrat A. Polly Williams. As a state legislator in 1990 she fought a hard-won battle to enact the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which allows low-income children in Milwaukee to use public vouchers to attend nonsectarian private schools. In 1995 the legislation was amended to include religious schools. The second is J. Patrick Rooney, chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Company. In 1991 he founded the first-ever private voucher program, the Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust, which provided partial tuition scholarships for low-income students in Indianapolis.

I was attracted to private vouchers for all the obvious reasons: I wanted to rescue kids from lousy schools and I wanted to offer parents of limited means the freedom to choose the best education for their children. But I thought that such vouchers might be fairer and might have a more dramatic impact on education reform if they were offered to all students in a single institution. If four or five students fade out of a public school, no one notices, and it is easy for administrators to go about their business as usual. If a huge number of students depart, it is a major embarrassment. I wanted to shake things up—to introduce significant competition, just as Federal Express and UPS did when they took on the U.S. Postal Service. I had spent most of my working life in the investment business and had witnessed firsthand how competition, no matter how risky, had ultimately resulted in more innovation and better products and services.

So I made some notes about what I wanted to do—scribbles that would have ended up in the wastebasket but for the efforts of the talented and dedicated staff members of the Empire Foundation for Policy Research in Albany, New York. Under the direction of Tom Carroll, they helped make my idea a reality. In December 1996 we announced that a new program called “A Better Choice” (later renamed “A Brighter Choice Scholarships”) would offer every student at Giffen Memorial Elementary School a scholarship (worth 90 percent of tuition with an annual cap of $2,000) to attend the private school of his/her choice for three to six years.

Why did we pick on Giffen? Only half of its third-graders were able to meet the minimum standards for literacy. Year after year it topped the list as the worst elementary school in Albany, New York.

Of course, many opponents in the media, the public school bureaucracy, and the teachers unions claimed that we were out to destroy Giffen and public education. They were greatly alarmed that, by mid-1997, nearly 20 percent of the student body—105 out of 458 children—were using our scholarships to escape Giffen.

At the same time they were making dire predictions, Forbes was running a favorable cover story on “Voucher Kids,” most notably on our scholarship recipients. The story generated national attention, and along with the mass exodus of students, it prompted Giffen to make changes. The principal and 20 percent of the teachers were replaced and two assistant principals were hired, and subsequently a revamping of the curriculum took place. Giffen did not go out of business. It changed, thanks to competition.

Why did I offer my scholarships? I believe “public education” means tax dollars should be spent to make sure that citizens are educated. This should not mean that parents (unless they have money) should have to send their children to government owned and operated schools determined by where they live. Parents should have the freedom in a democracy to decide what is best for their children. Schools should have the freedom to decide how best to educate. I would like to see an open education system that allows for many kinds of schools and school choice. Philanthropists can help point the way.