“Pell Grants for Kids” Highlights Need for School Choice

In his final “State of the Union” address last week, President Bush asked Congress to support a new $300 million program called “Pell Grants for Kids,” which would provide $500 scholarships to low-income children in underperforming schools to attend the elementary and high schools of their parents’ choice. The program is named for the Federal Pell Grant program in which Federal money follows students to the public or private colleges of their choice. Critics of the President’s new program quickly pointed out that “Pell Grants for Kids” is “vouchers” with another name. For some reason, grants for greater educational opportunity are applauded at the college level and for veterans, but not always for students under the age of 18.

Here in Oregon, the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland has a ten-year history of demonstrating the value of a small grant program in providing a “hand up” to grade school kids from low-to-moderate-income families. CSF-Portland is entirely privately funded by generous local donors, whose gifts are matched by a challenge grant from the national Children’s Scholarship Fund.

To be eligible, families must have incomes low enough that they would qualify for the Federal Free and Reduced Price Lunch Program. CSF-Portland parents pay, on average, over half the cost of private/parochial school tuition themselves. (They pay $1,899 on average per child this year.) Often with more than one child in school, these parents are making a major financial commitment and sacrifice.

CSF-Portland scholarships average only $1,500 per child, but this relatively small amount often makes the difference between children attending a public school where (for whatever reason) they aren’t thriving and attending a private school where they are.

CSF-Portland parents will do anything to help their children succeed in school and in life. That is why they voluntarily forgo “free” public education in favor of what they see is working for their kids (private and parochial schools, home schooling, Montessori, Waldorf, etc.).

That is also why these families are so deserving of a helping hand. To them, a private scholarship is not an entitlement. Parents are contributing a significant amount themselves in money, time and lifestyle adjustments and often express their appreciation for the help they have received. Students frequently say they are determined to succeed and want to give back as adults. Many former students are now in college and pursuing careers.

CSF-Portland is one of about 40 “partner programs” of the national Children’s Scholarship Fund, which provides matching challenge grants to local scholarship organizations. When CSF-Portland began in 1999, the parents of 6,639 children in the Portland Metro area applied for the 550 available scholarship awards.

Nationwide, over 1.25 million children applied for CSF scholarships that year. 44% of the eligible population of Baltimore applied for CSF scholarships, 33% of those eligible in Philadelphia, 33% of Washington, D.C. and 29% of New York City.

These numbers are particularly amazing because, in order to apply, parents had to have heard of the scholarship program on their own and to have taken the trouble to apply. And these are some of the lowest-income people in their communities — just the people many argue do not know what is going on with their children and couldn’t or wouldn’t make the sacrifices required by private schools.

The demand for choice in education is growing, increasingly so among lower-income parents. While Americans engage in necessary public debates on education reform, school choice and the best ways to bring those about practically, we cannot wait to help children. They are growing up fast. Parents want the best for their children, and private programs like the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland are proud to help them achieve it.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director, Development Coordinator, and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s premier free market think tank.