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Look Out, It's Voucher Man

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A California tycoon is betting $20 million that he can persuade voters to turn education upside down

July 10, 2000
Web posted at: 4:45 p.m. EDT (2045 GMT)

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.


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Cover Date: July 17, 2000

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