Look Out, It's Voucher Man
A California tycoon is betting $20 million that he can persuade
voters to turn education upside down
Visualize this: Timothy Draper, the gonzo venture capitalist from
Silicon Valley, swoops into a South Central Los Angeles church to
preach the gospel of school vouchers to a group of black
ministers. He is introduced--by his own advance man--as "an
instrument of God's hand, like Rosa Parks." Never mind that this
is a 42-year-old multimillionaire preppie known to ski in boxer
shorts and throw Frisbees at conferences, who even dressed as
Batman to inaugurate a Manhattan office. Today, Draper tells the
assembled pastors, he is ready to spend at least $20 million of
his fortune to "fix education." Moreover, he adds, "it won't cut
into my lifestyle one bit."
If Draper lacks the common touch, he makes up for it in chutzpah.
"I'm a freedom fighter," he says, explaining why he is
bankrolling a campaign to pass an initiative that would require
the state to offer a $4,000 annual voucher to any parent, rich or
poor, to send a child to private school. The measure, which will
be on California's November ballot, is likely to spark the most
heated and expensive proposition campaign in the U.S., with
vigorous opposition from Governor Gray Davis, the California
Teachers Association, PTAs and groups such as the California
Business Roundtable. The sideshow could influence the
presidential race in the most golden state of all, inciting
greater Democratic turnout to fight the measure. Voucher
advocates may try to persuade George W. Bush to endorse it--and
risk alienating moderates.
This week Draper, a prominent Bush fund raiser, will launch the
campaign for the proposition with a $4,000-a-head cocktail party
at his home in a wealthy community outside San Francisco, along
with rallies in San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno and Sacramento.
Overseeing the effort are Joe Gaylord, longtime strategist for
Newt Gingrich, and Pat Rosenstiel, a former Midwest political
director for Steve Forbes. But few if any big names are expected
to high-five with Draper at his campaign podiums. So far, such
school-choice advocates as financier Ted Forstmann and Wal-Mart
heir John Walton, who have raised $100 million to send poor
children to private schools, are steering clear, as are Bush and
other elected officials.
Draper's initiative is different from Florida's voucher law,
signed by Governor Jeb Bush but now under court challenge. The
initiative would not target low-income families or subpar
schools. "If it were for just one type of person, it would mean
more bureaucracy," he says. Draper's polls show that an
across-the-board voucher has more chance of passage. Indeed,
Bishop Charles Blake, of the West Angeles Church of God in
Christ, where Draper met with pastors, endorses the measure,
which would be a boon to his 230-pupil Christian academy. But the
Rev. Cecil Murray of the First African Methodist Church, fears
"it would siphon off people of privilege [from public schools]
and subsidize that siphoning." Families of the more than 600,000
California children already in private school would be eligible
for an estimated $2.4 billion a year in vouchers. People like
Draper, a graduate of Andover, the elite boarding school attended
by George W., could qualify for all four of his children.
Like any other Harvard M.B.A., Draper sees his $20 million pledge
as an investment. "This will translate into $25 billion worth of
scholarships," he enthuses. Come again? Well, that's roughly 6
million students--the number at California public
schools--multiplied by $4,000. A state where all children will
have transferred to private schools, thanks to public funds?
That, for certain, is one way to "fix" public education.