Education reforms come and go, usually with little impact. But one person who made a difference for the better was Ted Forstmann, who died Nov. 20 in New York City at age 71. Forstmann made a fortune through investment firms and other businesses. He also criticized junk bonds as too risky. And he predicted the “easy money” policies by the Federal Reserve Board in the early part of the past decade would lead to a crash, which occurred in 2008.
But he best will be remembered as an education reformer, especially of students in failing inner-city schools. Unlike so many others, Forstmann refused to write off these kids. In 1999, he teamed with John Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune who died in 2005, to put a combined $100 million into the Children’s Scholarship Fund. Along with mandated parental contributions based on need — a key to the program’s success — the money paid the tuition at private schools chosen by the parents.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger detailed the success of the fund: “An almost incomprehensible 1.25 million families from some 22,000 U.S. cities and towns applied for the four-year scholarships. In New York City, 168,000 applied (about 30 percent of those eligible) for 2,500 scholarships. Nor were they seeking a free ride. The scholarships were typically for less than $2,000 a year, with the parents expected to pitch in perhaps half of that.”
Although both founders now are gone, the fund continues to this day. Its motto, “Their future begins with you.”
Former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle told us how Forstmann’s philanthropy benefited Orange County. “I set up a version of the CSF in Anaheim and this program provided up to 75 percent of the school tuition costs to about 180 low-income kids per year,” Pringle said. “Mike Warder (now at Pepperdine) was leading the local effort of the CSF at the time. He found one significant local donor who pledged $400,000. I committed to raise the funds to match. And Forstmann/Walton funded another $400,000. Through this effort we provided these scholarships totaling nearly $1.5 million for many kids right here in Orange County.”
At a time when the Occupy movement is attacking wealthy Americans, Pringle pointed out that rich folks are crucial to advancing reforms. “Ted Forstmann and John Walton’s wealth made its way to our community funding over 100 low-income kids’ tuition at St. Anthony Claret school here in Anaheim, as one of the many schools where children attended,” Pringle said.
We long have encouraged many reforms of the public schools: charters, school choice and magnet schools. But, ultimately, the best reforms are those that break through the bottlenecks in the system. Ted Forstmann was a pioneer in doing just that. The reformer is gone. His reforms live on in the hearts and minds of the countless children whose futures he made brighter.