The Children's Scholarship Fund is set to do it again.
In 1998, financier Ted Forstmann of Forstmann Little & Co. and John Walton, heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, made headlines when they created the fund, making $200 million available to help send 40,000 children from low-income families to private schools.
Now, over the next two years, the New York-based CSF will offer an additional $80 million to create 14,000 more scholarships for students in 18 locations, including Baltimore, Cincinnati, Newark, N.J., Omaha, Neb., Philadelphia; San Francisco, and the state of Michigan.
For some supporters of government-sponsored school vouchers, this fresh round of private scholarship spending comes at just the right time - perhaps giving new impetus to the idea of rescuing children from failing public schools.
"This kind of private spending plays a key role in sustaining the [public] voucher movement," says Martin Carnoy, professor of education and economics at Stanford University in California.
Of late, some of the momentum has slipped from the drive to use publicly sponsored school vouchers.
Only 34 percent of respondents to this year's Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of America's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools said they favored the idea of using public money to send US schoolchildren to private schools, down from 39 percent last year, and 43 percent in 1997. In addition, in statewide referendums earlier this year in California and Michigan, voters turned their thumbs down to proposals on publicly funded vouchers.
The idea was also dropped fairly quickly from the Bush administration's education package when it became clear that it would be a hard sell in Congress.
But private spending by organizations like CSF could be helpful in keeping the debate alive.
"Private programs provide opportunity for additional research, which could add pressure and also keeps the idea alive in public discussion," says Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has studied CSF and other scholarship programs. "They get people talking about it."
The first round of CSF spending served that purpose. A Harvard University study of CSF scholarship recipients and their parents found a high level of satisfaction with private-school opportunities, a finding that was seen as a plus for the voucher movement.
But not everyone agrees that the private efforts reveal what would happen if there were a public voucher system. Although praising the quality of some of the studies on private scholarships, Professor Carnoy says they can't be used to draw wider conclusions. "The main problem is that they're based on pretty small samples," he says.
CSF insists it does not want to be inserted into the public-policy debates. "We're not trying to make a political point, and we're not basing our decisions on the political climate or what's coming out of Washington," says Elizabeth Toomey, CSF's associate program director. "We're just happy to be able to meet a need we see out there."
Although Mr. Forstmann is not reticent about his own enthusiasm for the idea of public vouchers, the CSF board was crafted to include those who - despite enthusiasm for private scholarships - do not necessarily support the idea of spending public dollars on private-school tuition.
The public interest in the CSF scholarships took some by surprise. There were 1.25 million applications for the original 40,000 scholarships.
The scholarships did not represent a free ride for the families that received them, nor were they used to place children in elite institutions. The average scholarship amount was $1,049, with families typically contributing about $1,315, to send students to schools with an average tuition of $2,364.
And yet, according to the Harvard study, a clear majority of CSF parents saw the chance to remove their children from public school as a significant benefit, with many of them citing an improved atmosphere or culture at the private schools.
That's the kind of finding that "provides clear evidence that voucher plans work," says voucher advocate Richard Komer, a senior attorney for The Institute for Justice in Washington. Although Mr. Komer insists that the future of publicly funded vouchers rides mostly on whether the Supreme Court will hear a voucher case later this year, he also believes that private programs like CSF's are a plus for the movement.
The positive feelings created by such efforts, he says, can contrast sharply with those engendered by troubled public school districts.
That's the kind of conclusion voucher advocates are likely to draw from private scholarship programs, Carnoy says. "They give an enormous amount of energy to the pro-voucher folks who can stand up and say, 'Look, these vouchers really help these kids. You politicians should really do something about this.' "