Giving Ventures Podcast: Episode 60 — Not Waiting for Government to Fund Kids’ Schooling

On the latest episode of Giving Ventures, DonorsTrust Vice President Peter Lipsett talks with Darla Romfo, president and CEO of Children’s Scholarship Fund; Norton Rainey, CEO of ACE Scholarships; and Carol Liebau, president of Yankee Institute. The guests share what their nonprofits are doing to ensure every child gets a quality education no matter where they live. Tune in for this and more on the latest episode of Giving Ventures.

Romfo: Parent Engagement Critical to Student Success

Darla Romfo says that Children’s Scholarship Fund has “evolved” over the years but credits its success to the generosity of founders and to parents committed to making sure their children receive the best education possible.

“[Founders] Ted and John came to see that this sacrificial component this parent engagement, this participation of the families — this was really critical and important. And so … they and the families that came after them, that has been a strong base for us to continue to raise money and to continue to help families,” says Romfo.

In fact, CSF during its early years received more than 1 million applications for 40,000 partial scholarships disbursed over four school years. The success of this partial-scholarship program was proof-of-concept, and showed area lawmakers that families in the northeast want more educational options for their kids.

Romfo: ‘Our Customer is Always Going to Be the Family’

While there are more educational options for students in the northeast, says Romfo, it’s particularly satisfying that the team at Children’s Scholarship Fund doesn’t primarily answer to state and local bureaucrats. Instead, she and her team are on a mission to empower parents and students directly.

“I think the unique and really special thing about having [the CSF scholarships] be administered by a scholarship-granting organization, a not-for-profit, is that we are very clear about who our customer is. Our customer is always going to be the family.”

Rainey: ‘Soaring Demand’ for School Choice

The team at Colorado-based ACE Scholarships offers partial scholarships to middle-class and underprivileged students in 12 states nationwide. This year, the team awarded partial scholarships to 14,000 students and will be even better positioned to offer scholarships this coming fall, when Norton estimates they’ll have doubled the number of scholarship recipients in an effort to keep up with the number of people applying for the assistance.

“Where we are is a testament to what is occurring in our country. There is a soaring demand among parents for school choice and so ACE is the tip of the spear, and we call this a watershed moment. This is our moment in time right now where the foundation we’ve laid in this organization and our knowledge and our base and understanding had to expand to more states and serve more kids is really more critical than ever,” says Rainey.

Rainey: ‘Shiny Object in School Choice’ are ESAs

In addition to providing material resources to those endeavoring to transfer out of failing schools, the team at ACE primarily works in three areas: creating model legislation and rallying support in states that haven’t yet introduced formal school-choice legislation; working to expand the tax-credit policy for those parents and guardians interested in school choice; and advocating for expansion of Education Savings Account programs.

“The most exciting, shiny object in school choice are these education savings accounts or ‘ESAs’ — and that’s what the country’s really embracing at this time … and they tend to be passed by red states more than blue. So, our traditional, core model is really taking hold in blue states right now where they’re not passing legislative initiatives and they’re raising money from private citizens to support kids to go to their school of choice.”

Liebau: Teachers’ Union Facing Pressure from Connecticut Residents on Education Reform

The folks at Yankee Institute are fighting the good fight in Connecticut, which has long been a collective-bargaining stronghold and, therefore, hostile to anyone who might propose introducing legislation friendly to things to education savings accounts.

“So far, we have had a state that is very dominated by one special interest and that is government unions. Chief among them, of course, are our friends in the teachers’ union, the leaders of the teachers’ union, who are very resistant … to any kind of education reform,” says Carol.

The pandemic, however, gave Connecticut parents and guardians a window into their children’s classrooms. This, in turn, prompted parents to question the quality of the education kids receive in private schools and helped sway parents in favor of education reform.

“That, we believe, is beginning to change—not because they’re having a change of heart—but because people across our state saw just how badly children, and especially low-income children, suffered during the COVID pandemic.

Liebau: Connecticut Center for Educational Excellence Creating Scholarship Program for Low-Income Students

To take advantage of this groundswell of statewide support for education reform, the folks at Yankee Institute created a project called the “Connecticut Center for Educational Excellence.” The project will provide scholarships to low-income students in the Constitution State.

“We have decided that we are providing these scholarships statewide and, providing these scholarships is a wonderful thing in and of itself, but there is also a strategic component to CTCEE’s decision to do this,” says Carol.

Not only will the project provide scholarships for low-income students who qualify for the school-lunch program—it’ll also help magnify the groundswell of support for education reform throughout the state by empowering families to advocate for school choice.

“As CTCEE provides these scholarships, it also offers an avenue for Yankee Institute to come alongside and to really get to know the families that these scholarships go to, and to work with them and to help them become the most influential and the most effective advocates for education reform.”

Liebau: Tax-Credit-Scholarship ‘Hours’ from Passing When Teachers’ Union Squashed the Bill

In order to encourage education reform in the blue state of Connecticut, the team at Yankee Institute is pushing state lawmakers to enact legislation that would allow donors to take a tax credit for donations made to CTCEE and earmarked for low-income scholarships.

“That is not yet law. We are working to make that law and, last year, we came within hours of that becoming law and, in fact, we were assured it was going to happen and the teachers’ union … were able to reach their friends in the legislature and get that one provision stripped out.”


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