Scholarship' Scam

Sometimes you have to look behind the facade.

When CEO America was created back in 1994, the group was supposed to be a clearinghouse and funding source for private scholarship programs that help low-income children. Founded with $2 million from the Walton Family Foundation, the foundation today has more than 40 affiliates around the country.

Thus, when the Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF), an outfit set up by CEO America's John Walton, announced that it would pick up the tab for 40,000 private school scholarships this year, the plan seemed to pose no church-state problems. Americans United strongly opposes taxpayer funding of religious schools through vouchers or any other mechanism, but we have refrained from criticizing privately funded plans since no tax money is involved.

Lately, however, CEO America's leaders have been more forthcoming about their ultimate goals. They have stated flatly that they hope their private voucher plans lead to public ones. In other words, the much-ballyhooed "scholarship" giveaway is all a ruse to win taxpayer support for religious and other private schools.

Fritz Steiger, president of the Bentonville, Ark.-based group, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette recently that CEO America intends to spend less time and money funding private vouchers and more resources on lobbying for taxpayer-funded plans.

It's a classic bait-and-switch scam. By funding private vouchers for four years only, CSF and its CEO America benefactors hope to hook some parents with voucher "bait." The "switch" comes when those people are then pressured to demand that their state legislature or the U.S. Congress set up a voucher program.

CEO America's push for tax aid for sectarian and other private schools is already well under way. Two months ago, the group sent out a fund-raising letter imploring its supporters to contribute funds to help pass voucher bills in Florida and Texas.

Asserts the letter, "Indeed, Florida and Texas can serve as models to the rest of the nation that competition improves public education. And getting school choice measures approved in two of the nation's most populous states could snowball into school choice legislation moving to the forefront in legislatures all across the nation."

The leaders of CEO America and its spin-off Children's Scholarship Fund are often portrayed in the media as generous philanthropists who want to help poor children by getting them out of troubled public schools. The organizations have worked hard to cultivate that image and spend plenty of money on slick magazines and public relations firms to promote that view.

The truth is much more complex. The two groups' chief bankroller, John Walton, heir to the Wal-Mart discount store fortune, has a vested personal interest in seeing private education grow. Walton, an enthusiastic voucher booster, has owned nearly a quarter of a million shares in a school privatization company called TesseracT Group, Inc., and serves on that firm's board of directors.

Ted Forstmann, a Wall Street leveraged-buyout wizard and head of the Children's Scholarship Fund, helped found and donates generously to Empower America, a right-wing Washington "think tank" that employs William Bennett. Bennett, the ex-education secretary, has a long, shameful history of uninformed, mean-spirited attacks on public education. (Forstmann also serves on the board of the voucher-loving Cato Institute.)

Put simply, this crew does not now and never has had the best interests of public education at heart. Given this sorry track record, Americans would be wise to look with extreme skepticism at CEO America's claim that it wants to "help" public education.

Public schools serve more than 48 million American children every school day. That's 90 percent of all school-aged children. If CEO America really wants to help these children, it might consider using its formidable fund-raising machine to pay for things that work--smaller class sizes, innovative programs for at-risk students, teaching methods that increase reading skills and techniques to spur parental involvement.

Instead, the organization offers up a litany of tiresome voucher arguments, all based on speculation and bad public policy theory. CEO America's key argument--that public schools will improve by being forced to compete with private schools--is a good example.

This is perhaps the voucher boosters' biggest canard. Public schools are required by law to educate all children. They must provide services for special-needs pupils, those who with learning disabilities and even kids who are disruptive in class. Public schools cannot simply expel such students or deny them admission in the first place.

Compare this to private schools, which are free to maintain exclusionary admissions policies and may expel students for any reason. Private schools don't have to deal with the most expensive students to educate, and most don't.

Given these disparities, it's absurd to think that public and private schools can ever truly compete. For the competition to be fair, private schools would have to accept all of the regulations that public schools already meet. Of course, they aren't willing to do that.

CEO America's tycoons are free to underwrite any private school voucher scheme they choose. But when they brazenly announce their intention to win passage of taxpayer-funded voucher schemes that would violate the separation of church and state and destroy our public schools, it's time to expose their scam for what it is.