Empowering Parents Gives Low-Income Children a High-Quality Education

Fourteen years ago, the late philanthropists Ted Forstmann and John Walton challenged local donors across the country to join them in pledging $200 million to start the first national K-8 scholarship program in the country. They planned to help 40,000 low-income children get a head start in life with a quality education in the private or parochial schools of their parents’ choice. But instead of 40,000 applications, they received 1.25 million from low-income parents everywhere―more than 31 times the number of scholarships available.


Forstmann and Walton found out quickly: Low-income parents were desperately seeking a high-quality education they couldn’t find in their local public schools, and they were willing to pay what they could for it. A modestly sized tuition scholarship would make all the difference to their families―and their children’s futures. In Baltimore, 44% of the eligible population sent applications. Thirty-three percent applied in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., 26% in Chicago and Atlanta, 29% in New York City, and 32% in Saint Louis. In Portland, Oregon, more than 6,600 applied for 500 available scholarships. Since 1999, the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) has invested $483 million in private scholarships for more than 130,000 children.


The Children’s Scholarship Fund’s mission is to maximize educational opportunity by offering tuition assistance in grades K-8 for alternatives to faltering public schools and by supporting education reform and parental choice efforts. CSF is the country’s largest charity helping parents to send their children to the schools of their choice. By offering parents the chance to choose which school best fits their child’s needs, CSF puts power back in the hands of parents, where it belongs. And since every family is required to pay a minimum of $500 towards tuition (many pay much more), every CSF scholarship is truly a hand up, not a handout.


CSF believes that when parents have real choices in their children’s education, children have better chances at success in school; and the data have borne this out. A Harvard study found that CSF parents were about five times more likely to give their children’s schools an “A” than public school parents. CSF scholarship recipients are more likely to graduate than their public school peers, as demonstrated by studies in the Bay Area, Charlotte, Denver, and Philadelphia. Studies of CSF students in Baltimore, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Philadelphia found their test scores were higher than those of their counterparts in nearby public schools. Harvard evaluations of the CSF program in three cities (New York, Washington, D.C., and Dayton) showed that scholarships narrow the achievement gap between black and white students in math and reading by about half.


The private schools CSF students attend typically spend one-third to one-half what neighboring public schools spend per student with much better results (the average tuition for CSF students in 2011-12 was $4,020). CSF scholarships demonstrate that a relatively small philanthropic investment (the average scholarship award was $1,579 in 2011-12), combined with a contribution from the parent, can provide a private school education and a better chance of graduating from high school.


Ted Forstmann once said, “Every child, regardless of their parents’ income, should have access to a quality education―an education that will not only prepare them for successful private lives, but help them to build cohesive communities and a strong democracy. We believe if you give parents a choice, you will give their children a chance.”


Today, nearly half the children born into poverty will stay in poverty as adults, but a key path to changing that outcome is an education that leads to high school graduation and future employment. CSF helps empower parents to put their children on that path. Thanks to the generosity of Forstmann, Walton, and every donor at the local and national levels who have supported this unique charity, more than 130,000 children have been a given that chance.


Will you join with the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland in helping low-income Oregon children get a hand up in life with a solid elementary education? When matched by a grant from the national Children’s Scholarship Fund, your gift of any size helps a low-income child attend a private school. You can give securely online at cascadepolicy.org/links/children.


Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute and Director of the privately funded Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland, which provides partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families.

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