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Scaling Down: The Power of One

By Darla M. Romfo

Earlier this fall I had the pleasure of attending the awards ceremony for the Broad Prize for Urban Education. In the ensuing days, many bloggers and journalists weighed in with criticism, including one who pointed out that “although recent winners of the Broad Prize show positive results compared to many large urban districts, their scores are largely flat—or worse—over the past several years.”

I am sure this must be both disappointing and frustrating to Mr. and Mrs. Broad who made the fortune they are giving away by innovating, adapting, and always getting better. They wanted this prize to inspire the same kind of actions in public education.

Teddy Forstmann, who, along with John Walton, founded the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) in 1998, was a man cut from the same cloth as Mr. Broad. Ted hoped the demand demonstrated when parents of 1.25 million children applied for 40,000 partial scholarships to escape their assigned public school would get the ball rolling and bring about substantial educational improvement for all children within the four-year window for those first scholarships. In Ted’s experience, demand for a better product and a bit of competition led to an improved product. Ted was certainly frustrated with the snail’s pace of it all.

And by now everyone who has ever uttered the words “education reform” is a little frustrated. More than a decade later, billions more in taxpayer dollars, in addition to the billions heaped on by private philanthropy, has been spent to achieve largely mediocre to poor overall results. There are pockets of hope, and we do have much better data. Now we know there is not only an achievement gap between minorities and whites, but also between all U.S. students and children in other countries.

It’s not clear that if we had full blown school choice, the end of teacher tenure, higher standards, or whatever flavor of education reform you favor, that every child would have the opportunity to reach their full potential. Certainly, one or some combination of those things would help many children; but we would still have kids who live in poverty and very unsettled home situations coming to school every day with needs that are beyond what can be addressed by education reform alone.

One thing I have both experienced through relationships with students I’ve met through CSF and observed in the lives of others is that a caring adult who really invests in an authentic relationship with a child will bring enormous benefits to the child, to say nothing of the rewards to the adult. I know Ted and John both experienced this with children they helped directly apart from their education reform efforts. John once told me on a school visit in Omaha that giving the scholarships and meeting the kids and their parents grounded the whole effort of trying to reform the larger system. He knew no matter what happened with those efforts, he was having a direct impact on the lives of kids today.

We can’t stop trying to get education right in America, but maybe we will get further faster if every adult who can gets involved in the life of a child who has a couple of strikes against them. Whether it is through a mentoring program, a scholarship program, a school-based program, or some other means, it could make the ultimate difference in a child’s life, and you don’t have to be up to speed on the latest education reform idea to do it and make it work. Anyone who is willing to give of themselves to another human being will bring about change in that person and themselves. Isn’t that the real reason we are all here anyway?

Darla M. Romfo is President and COO of Children’s Scholarship Fund, based in New York City. CSF has helped 139,000 low-income children nationwide attend the K-8 schools of their parents’ choice through privately funded scholarships worth $568 million. Cascade Policy Institute runs CSF’s Oregon partner program, Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland.

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