John F. Kirtley
President, Children First America
Trustee, Walton Family Foundation
The Philanthropy Roundtable concluded its special pre-conference sessions on education with a luncheon salute to these outstanding educational donors. Messrs. Walton and Kirtley spoke on their experiences in the field.
Mr. Kirtley: Let me explain how I got into this. I was in business financing small companies and quickly learned about the government’s role in our lives. Reading Nobel economist Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom, I was struck by the chapter on education. Back in the early 1960s, Friedman had warned, “I’m worried because we trust the delivery of education in our country to a government monopoly, and that’s not necessarily a recipe for success.”
I wanted to help change that, and so I started working with one Catholic school in the very low-income South Bronx. Amazed that poor parents paid good money to send kids there, I decided to see how many parents in my hometown of Tampa would want a choice in education if they had some financial aid. This is where John Walton was so helpful. He was my partner in a privately funded scholarship fund in Tampa that offered 750 partial scholarships to poor kids.
We had no advertising. I just spoke at churches and housing projects; yet we received 12,000 applications. That outpouring led us to try to change public policy to help more low-income parents have choice.
I have learned that private philanthropy and public policy are inextricably linked. Many people tell me, “I don’t want to get involved with politics,” and in this circus of a state I understand. [Laughter.] When you become involved in public policy, it can be messy, but unfortunately someone has to.
Still, if you don’t want to mess with public policy, that’s O.K. Private philanthropy can avoid public policy and yet lay the groundwork for public policy breakthroughs. For example, the Children’s Scholarship Fund exposed a lie about school choice-that low-income parents don’t want school choice, they just want more money for existing public schools. When you have 12,000 applications for private scholarships in one city alone and 1.2 million nationwide, that lie is history.
Private philanthropy did that, and it can also help implement public policy. For instance, a nonprofit we started last year raised $5 million to help poor neighborhoods start new private schools. We’ve helped 23 new schools and 25 expanding, existing schools create 4,800 student slots.
One story exemplifies our work. A wonderful woman at a Miami homeless shelter approached us and said, “There should be a school here.” She had a Ph.D. in education and was a refugee from the public school system, which had frustrated her. We knew she had the right stuff and gave her a $150,000 grant. This fall she opened a new school with 75 low-income kids, all on the tax-credit scholarships I described in my earlier talk.
This school did not exist a few months ago. But last week I walked through it and saw kids society would give up on, and for the first time, they are happy, safe-and learning. I watched young boys studying geometry and playing chess. I watched teenaged girls who had visited the Amistad slave ship-the school is 100 percent African American-searching the Internet and writing reports on it. They were excited about learning. Then I attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony where the principal had all the parents speak. They were very poor, their English was broken, but their words were quite clear. They talked about how they felt empowered to be able to choose the best school for their kids, how for the first time they had hope for their children. What other reason could you need to be involved?
A revolution is occurring; its ground zero is probably Florida. It’s not easy, but it’s great to be at the front.
Mr. Walton: The journey to choice for me and for our foundation began a dozen years ago. Becoming more involved in education, we recognized, as most of you probably have, that education is the highest point of leverage we could attain. All the challenges we face as a nation have the roots of their solutions in good education for all of our kids. The question is, how do you help kids across our country without regard to their family circumstances?
Answering that question took us through the usual course of education giving: You begin to support programs you hope will address the problems, and you see some improvement. But the improvements are transitory, lasting only as long as the heroes making them work are on the job. When the heroes go away, the programs become ineffective.
We recognized the challenge would be to create lasting change. We began to look at education in a larger context, and we saw that the people on the receiving end, the customers if you will, have absolutely no influence. If you look at it in terms of power-something all the opponents of choice understand very well-you will “follow the money.” The money in education comes from the top, filters its way down, and various interest groups and factions pull off their share into what they think is important. The customers at the bottom just take what they’re given.
In any system, if you want to increase the attention a group receives, you must increase their power. The best way to empower schoolchildren and parents is to let them direct the money.
How do you do this? You let parents direct resources to schools that work for them. Charter schools are a great example of this principle, as are “schools of choice,” vouchers, tax credits-they’re all part of the effort to provide parents with the power to direct resources.
The world of choice has become somewhat fractured among charter and voucher and tax-credit people. I think they all have far more in common than they have differences, because all those mechanisms work to empower parents. You see that mix wherever you see empowerment in action-in Milwaukee, Florida, and elsewhere.
Opponents of choice claim these programs will take money from public schools that desperately need it. But in fact kids across this country have been choosing to leave public schools at an incredible rate for years, and they have “taken money” with them because most states fund schools according to enrollment. We call these school choice kids dropouts. In 26 of the top 50 districts by size in this country, dropout rates between grades 8-12 exceed 50 percent for either African-American or Latino students.
Should we blame the state of public schools on kids who have left and “taken” those dollars away? That’s a stretch. Would forcing them to come back and bring the money with them solve the problems of education? Not likely.
Those kids have decided what’s available to them on the street is more valuable than what’s available in their schools. We can’t stop them from choosing. But we have a great opportunity to help provide kids with better choices.
Of course, no matter what choices they have, a majority of our kids are always likely to be in what we consider public schools. There are good reasons for that. The public schools are the repository of a tremendous amount of talent and infrastructure. They have the tools. What they lack is an environment that encourages excellence and sanctions failure. That’s what choice provides.
When you have that environment, you get results such as we see in Milwaukee, where the public schools now have their Democratic mayor and a majority of their school board supporting the charter and choice environment. And performance in Milwaukee public schools is among the most rapidly improving of any urban district in the country. They are exceeding the national average for urban public schools in 12 of 15 different categories.
Similarly, in the small Texas district of Edgewood our foundation has helped fund a private school choice program for the last few years. Public school officials there strongly oppose it, but at the classroom level, teachers have responded magnificently. They have improved test scores at about six times the state’s rate of improvement. It happened because teachers saw kids beginning to leave and asked, “What am I doing that is not serving those kids?”
I have tremendous faith in the public system. I’m disturbed when people who claim to support public education have zero confidence our public schools can deliver. I’m convinced they can. Florida is another example. John Kirtley spoke earlier about the response of Florida’s public schools to competition.
There are lots of opportunities for donors everywhere, and I encourage you to examine them more thoroughly.