Grantor: Ted Forstmann and John Walton
Grantee: Washington Scholarship Fund
Amount: $6 million
Last September as children across the country headed back to school, thousands of public school children in our nation’s capital sat home. Dozens of Washington, D.C., schools were closed because the building roofs were leaking and in danger of collapsing after years of neglect.
Prospects were little better for those actually going to school. Although Washington, D.C., spends an astonishing $12,000 annually per public school student, or roughly double the national average, 40 percent of its students drop out before high school graduation. The city’s own Financial Control Board released a study last November highly critical of Washington’s public school system. “In virtually every area and for every grade level,” concluded the report, “the system has failed to provide our children with a quality education and a safe environment in which to learn.”
But all is not bad news for the parents and children of the District.
Ted Forstmann (of the investment banking firm of Forstmann Little & Co.) and John Walton (of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.) have each donated $3 million to the Washington Scholarship Fund, a private non-profit group that provides scholarships to poor District families (chosen by lottery) who wish to send their children to a private or parochial school for grades K-8. The program pays 30-60 percent of the cost of tuition (up to $1,700 per school year); parents have to cover the rest.
Founded in 1993 by two former staffers from the U.S. Department of Education, Douglas Dewey and George Pieler, WSF is one of 32 private programs nationwide that together help around 14,000 children with tuition costs.
“I hope this will be the wave of the future—citizens taking responsibility for problems and taking action,” said Ted Forstmann about the need for these scholarships. “There are just so many kids who need a boost that they aren’t getting, the way things are now. The point is, there’s nothing wrong with the kids. What’s wrong is the situation in which they find themselves. We can complain about it, or people of goodwill can step up to the plate and try to do something about it.” The program’s executive director, Doug Dewey, adds: “Beyond helping poor children attend private schools, these scholarships can transform families. Parents in our program are regaining the responsibility and authority for their children’s education.”
Thanks to the $6 million donation, WSF will be able to fund another 1,000 scholarships for the next school year. Demand for these scholarships has skyrocketed—by the January 31 deadline, WSF had received 7,573 applications, an unbelievable 17 percent of all District students eligible for the funds. With only three full-time staffers, the WSF has placed 440 pupils at 75 area schools. About 75 percent of the students enrolled in the WSF come from single parent families.
The program’s other big funder, John Walton, is refreshingly realistic for a reformer: “We know that this effort will not help everybody, and we are not pretending that this program is a solution to the challenges that we all face in improving education. What we are trying to do is help some children right away, because it is the right thing to do.”