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Funders of School Choice Aim to Boost 'Competition'

By guest blogger Mary Ann Zehr

At a meeting of school choice advocates yesterday in the nation's capital, three leading financial backers of public and private school choice programs laid out their case for why those efforts are critical to creating more competition in American education.

"The idea of having a monopoly in education is antithetical to everything in America," said Julian Robertson, the chairman and founder of Tiger Management LLC. He said parental choice in education provides competition, adding that "competition is part of the American dream, the American way of life."

And the school choice movement seems to be on a roll these days as Republicans who are newly elected to office are successfully pushing through state legislation to expand school voucher programs, as Sean Cavanagh has reported. But a vocal contingent of Americans also strongly oppose school choice, as a heckler at yesterday's meeting reminded everyone as she called out "you've got to go" before security officers removed her from the room.

The moderator for the panel, John Kirtley, a partner for KLH Capital, said Robertson has invested "countless millions in K-12 reform," including financing of charter schools in Newark, N.J., and the school voucher program in Washington, D.C., which the U.S. Congress just put back into operation. He also said that Robertson has donated money to the American Federation for Children, an organization with 501 (c) 4 status that helps to pay for the campaigns of state-level political candidates who favor school choice and was the sponsor of the "policy summit" on school choice. The organization's web site says it is "a leading national advocacy organization promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for school vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs."

Robertson said he gave money to the American Federation for Children because he once spent a day talking with politicians on Capitol Hill and didn't feel he was effective. He said he recognizes that lobbyists have an important role in that they "know who is receptive and who isn't."

By contrast, Albert Ratner, the co-chairman of the board of Forest City Enterprises, Inc., and another panelist, said he hasn't given any money to the American Federation for Children. The real estate investor was introduced as a funder of Roman Catholic schools in Cleveland, Ohio, (though he is not Catholic) and a financier of charter schools in both Cleveland and Denver.

When the moderator asked the panelists why many people who are willing to pay for charter schools aren't willing to give funds to organizations that promote school choice through the political process, Ratner responded that the American Federation for Children's message is too narrow and needs to be broadened. For example, he said, advocates of school choice are misguided if they portray "all charter schools as if they are great and all public schools as if they are not." Both the charter school sector and traditional school sector have schools that are great and not great, he observed.

He said one way to improve American education is to take some of the practices of charter schools and apply them to traditional public schools—an idea long sought by some education advocates.

Robertson held up the KIPP charter school network as a school model that has been "incredibly successful," but he added that "you also have a tremendous number of sorry charter schools."

The third funder of school choice on the panel, Bill Oberndorf, the founding partner of SPO Partners & Co., was credited by the moderator as having financed school choice with "tens of millions" of dollars and having provided "great strategic guidance" to the American Federation for Children. Oberndorf said that charter schools and voucher programs inject "competition into the equation."

Oberndorf and others celebrated the recent success of school choice advocates in state politics. Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, for example, just signed into law legislation that will greatly expand private school choice in his state—and takes the unusual step of offering private school aid to middle-income families. Oberndorf characterized that legislation as "the gold standard for what can be done."

But Robert W. Behning, an Indiana state representative who sponsored that legislation and is a Republican, expressed concern during a Q-and-A session that no Democrats had voted for the legislation. He wondered what can be done "to make sure that when the political winds change, we don't have all of that swept away."

Kirtley assured him that the American Federation for Children will stand ready to defend political candidates who are pro-school choice and help keep them in office.

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