By Dustin Petzold
Discussions of education reform more often center on policy than philanthropy. But these days, philanthropy is leading national improvements in schooling, and showing that better education is as much about empowering families to make choices as it is about empowering legislators to make new laws. Since 1998, for example, 139,000 students have had their life courses altered by the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a program created by donors Ted Forstmann and John Walton after they tired of waiting for Congress to act. They gave $6 million to a local scholarship fund, and then $100 million to take the program nationwide. In her new book, Opportunity and Hope, Naomi Schaefer Riley brings us the stories of ten of the students who benefited from this effort.
Meet Nyawuor Paljor, a Sudanese refugee in Omaha whose scholarship to All Saints Catholic School helped her and her siblings escape the violence and chaos in their local public school and thrive in their new American life. And Mira Martinez, a pediatric nurse in training whose education at a Cristo Rey school, sponsored by a CSF partner program in Denver, included work experience in a variety of professions, giving her a broader sense of her options and the means to reach them. And Silas Farley, a talented dancer from a large, working-class family in North Carolina, whose early support from CSF prepared him for a career in the New York City Ballet. These case studies show how dedicated educators and generous financial sponsors can join forces to help fragile students reach otherwise unattainable heights.
The Children’s Scholarship Fund now provides more than 25,000 scholarships a year, mostly to K-8 students. The program sometimes continues to support recipients through high school, and it has had great success at springboarding its beneficiaries into other high-school and college scholarships, because it paves the path to a quality education early on. (“High-school graduation,” Riley notes, “can be predicted with reasonable accuracy by a child’s reading skill at the end of third grade. A person who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by that time is unlikely to graduate from high school.”)…