I Was Present at the Creation of the . . . School Choice Movement in America

“Mother, I have to go to school today; my teachers are counting on me.”

I Was Present at the Creation of the . . .

School Choice Movement in America

By: George Noga – July 25, 2021

August is “Back to School” month for MLLG; we will publish a multi-part series on school choice throughout the entire month for which today’s posting is a prequel.

Next month marks the 30th anniversary of the school choice movement, which began in 1991 when the late J. Patrick Rooney used his own money to fund a private voucher program in Indianapolis for children from poor families. It was an instant success. The Wall Street Journal published a glowing front page story in 1993 which led to others starting similar programs in Milwaukee and San Antonio later that year.

I was in Hawaii vacationing with my family in the summer of 1993 when I read the WSJ article. My first thought was, “I can do that too“. I was not wealthy enough to fund the program by myself and would need to raise money. Fortunately, I was well positioned to shake the money tree by virtue of owning an investment firm that had some of the wealthiest people in our area as clients and also due to my erstwhile fund raising for local arts organizations while serving as head of the Orlando Opera.

I had raised enough (including $50,000 from Betsy DeVos of the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation) by the end of 1993 to fund 250 scholarships. I decided to begin in time for the 1994 school year and our Orlando program thus became the fourth one in the USA. To get the word out, we ran an ad in the Sunday paper and distributed applications at predominantly black churches. We had no idea what response to expect.

The first week after our ad, I was expecting 10-20 applications and would have been ecstatic with 50. Two days after our ad appeared, we received 250 applications and they flooded in until there were 2,500. We awarded scholarships by lottery with only 1 in 10 applicants selected. We urgently needed to raise money to help more kids.

Jeb Bush, the keynote speaker at our inaugural banquet, came up afterward and asked me if he could help. He committed a day of his time to help raise money and we soon spent a day meeting with business leaders throughout our area. Later, Jeb was able to get a corporate tax credit scholarship bill though the legislature, which provided money to foundations such as ours. The organization I founded in 1994, now called Step Up for Students, last year awarded 103,000 scholarships for $700 million to enable children from low-income families to escape failed government schools. Wow!

Because of the astounding success of our efforts in Orlando, I was invited to join the board of Children First America, the leading school choice organization in the USA. The board included Patrick Rooney, John Walton, Betsy DeVos and Ted Forstmann. During the years I served on this board, we raised many millions of dollars and were instrumental in starting private scholarship programs in over 100 American cities and our efforts led to 33 states (today) enacting educational choice voucher programs.

Each year in Orlando, we held a picnic for the scholarship children and their families. Near the end of the picnics, we invited parents, who wished to do so, to step up to the mic and share their personal journey. The stories we heard were heart rending. The scholarships truly changed countless lives. I recall one such story in particular.

One of our scholarships went to a middle school boy who had been in constant trouble at his government school. His mother told us he hated going to school and often feigned illness to avoid going. One morning, a few months after he began attending his new school, he awoke sick with a 102 degree temperature. Nonetheless, he insisted on going to school. Taken aback, his mother asked why he wanted to go. He replied, “Mother, I have to go to school today; my teachers are counting on me.”

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For the entire month of August, we address educational issues.

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