Academic journal article Policy Review

A Model of Cultural Leadership

Academic journal article Policy Review

A Model of Cultural Leadership

Article excerpt

The achievements of Privately Funded Vouchers

These visionaries are among the great conservative heroes of our time: J. Patrick Rooney. James R. Leininger. Michael S. Joyce. John T. Walton. Theodore J. Forstmann. The privately-funded voucher movement they have built is a model of strategic philanthropy. It is also one of this decade's most dramatic examples of effective political and cultural leadership.

The architects of the private voucher movement realize something that all too many conservatives have inexplicably forgotten in the 1990s: America is a free country. You do not have to wait for the politicians to advance a conservative reform agenda. You can take leadership into your own hands. You can create the institutions that will reshape the political and cultural landscape: the politicians will respond.

The privately-funded voucher movement is building a powerful constituency for school choice-black and Hispanic parents. Despite ferocious criticism of vouchers by the NAACP and most black political leaders, 65 percent of blacks between the ages of 26 and 35 support the use of taxpayer funds to send children to private and religious schools, according to a 1998 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Privately-funded vouchers have played a key role building this support.

Privately-funded voucher programs are focusing public attention on the merits of Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Muslim, Jewish, and other religious schools that, despite shoestring budgets, are giving superior education to poor children in the same neighborhoods as their local dead-end public schools. A decade ago, it was considered politically unthinkable to push for publicly funded vouchers that could be used at religious schools. Today, both Wisconsin and Ohio have enacted such programs, financing vouchers averaging $4,900 for up to 15,000 low-income children in Milwaukee, and $2,250 for up to 4,000 children in Cleveland.

The privately-funded voucher movement is also beginning to change the mindset of parents, showing how they can take responsibility for their children's education. An important feature of most private voucher programs is that they pay only partial tuition, usually half. Parents have to pay the rest, either in cash, or, if the school agrees, in volunteer services. This may sound harsh for families whose average income is $18,000. But this "hand up, not a handout" strategy, as Patrick Rooney has described it, makes a tremendous difference in opening educational opportunity. When parents have to scrimp and save to pay tuition, they think of education as an investment. They take charge. They pay attention to whether they are getting their money's worth, to what school will be best for their children. And children take school more seriously when they know their parents are sacrificing for the sake of their future.

J. Patrick Rooney

Rooney was the pioneer in privately-funded vouchers. The chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Co. set the tone for most of the movement when he established the Educational Choice Charitable Trust in 1991 in Indianapolis. Altogether the Golden Rule program has spent $5.7 million on vouchers for K-8 schools; today it offers half-tuition scholarships to over 1,700 Indianapolis children, awarded by lottery, with another 4,200 on the waiting list.

Rooney limited participation to lower-income families, and for administrative simplicity, to children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches as part of the federal school lunch program. This model, which has been followed by almost all other private programs, has been significant for two reasons. Critics have sometimes accused vouchers of being a subsidy for upper-income and middle-class families who could already afford private schools. The private voucher movement turned this argument upside-down by focusing voucher resources on poor children in inner cities. Private programs also called public attention to the children who could benefit most immediately from vouchers. …

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