Nudging Congress By Funding School Choice in DC

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1997

Investor Theodore Forstmann and Walmart heir John Walton were disappointed by waffling in Congress in the mid-1990s over a school-choice pilot program. There were proposals, enthusiastically backed by local residents, to help Washington, D.C., families trapped in miserable public schools place their children in private or parochial alternatives, but the plans were going nowhere. The Congressional indecision “was a joke,” Forstmann concluded. “So we said, ‘Okay, we’ll do it. Let’s get this program going and see if it works.’”

Forstmann and Walton joined forces in 1997 to donate $6 million to the Washington Scholarship Fund. The fund was a roaring success, with low-income families in the nation’s capital lining up several deep for every available scholarship. (This inspired Walton and Forstmann to collaborate in 1998 on a national version of their project: the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which they launched with contributions of $50 million each. For more information on this and other private philanthropy advancing school choice, charter schooling, and other innovations in school reform, see the companion list of achievements in Education giving.)

Because all of this happened right in Congress’s backyard, the philanthropic effort influenced politics and national opinion. In 2004, legislation finally passed creating the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the first federally funded school voucher program in the U.S. As of 2015 it provides scholarships of $8,000-$12,000 to low-income families so they can send their children to private or religious schools of their choice, benefiting more than 5,000 children.