- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

Philanthropist and businessman Theodore J. Forstmann is putting his millions behind a national public awareness campaign encouraging parents to embrace a new market-approach education system based on choice and competition.
Mr. Forstmann is co-founder of the Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF), which has given away more than $170 million in private school scholarships to low-income children since 1998.
His new organization, Parents in Charge, will begin a million-dollar-plus campaign within the next six months designed to create a new dialogue around education reform options that "put the needs of children ahead of the needs of the system," Mr. Forstmann said.
"It will look like a national political campaign without a candidate," said Mr. Forstmann, who has joined forces to found the new group with former education secretaries William J. Bennett and Joseph A. Califano Jr., and civil rights activist Martin Luther King III.
Mr. King, who serves as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said yesterday at a news conference in Washington that the new organization will offer "a clarion call" to families to take charge of their children's education.
"My father really challenged America to be a better nation," Mr. King said. "We're challenging our public school system … to be the best education system it can be. It is nowhere near there this day."
The Parents in Charge group's focus will not be political, Mr. Forstmann said. Other members of its diverse advisory board include Dorothy I. Height, chairwoman and president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women; Empower America co-director Jack Kemp; former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Hollywood power broker Michael S. Ovitz, head of the Artists Management Group.
About 11,000 teachers, including three National Teachers of the Year, also have signed a petition of support.
The goal is to marshal support from families to break what organizers describe as the government's "un-American" monopoly on public education and create a new system that gives all children the same chances to learn and succeed, said Mr. Forstmann, who will announce the details of his national campaign over the next two months.
Mr. Forstmann questioned why the United States' higher education system is a model for the world, but its K-12 education system does not share such acclaim.
"We don't allow people to choose where their children go to school, who teaches them or what they learn and we have one supplier with essentially no competition," Mr. Forstmann said.
"Given the fact that the payment for the product is mandatory through taxes and consumption of the product is compulsory through attendance laws that's about as powerful a monopoly as has ever existed."
Mr. Forstmann said Mr. Bush's education plan, which calls for increased accountability and standards, is a good idea, but not a "substitute for competition and freedom of choice."
He cited two studies commissioned by Parents in Charge that found that four out of five Americans think parents should be able to choose the school their children attend.
The research, conducted by SWR Worldwide and Wirthlin Worldwide, consisted of two surveys taken March 5 to 10 and March 23 to 26 of 1,000 Americans 18 and over. The margin of error for each study was plus or minus three percentage points.
The studies found that close to three-quarters of Americans said that the school a child attends should be determined by what works best for the child, not by where a child lives.
Nearly three-quarters of parents also favored being allowed to choose a different public school without having to go outside their school district. Fifty-seven percent of those polled said school choice would benefit the current education system.
Those findings, coupled by a runaway demand for CSF scholarships around the nation 160,000 are on waiting lists for the educational aid in New York City alone drove the decision to start the parents group.
Mr. Califano, who serves as the group's co-chairman and founded Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, said he thinks a market-approach would not destroy public education, as some have argued, but serve to make it better.
He said the time for major change is now, before the nation loses another generation including many poor and minority children who are being left behind by an aging system that is inadequate for their specific needs.
"This is the most effective affirmative-action program we could ever offer to minorities in this country," Mr. Califano said.

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