When designing programs to help for the poor, people might do well to consider this insight: it’s often a good idea for people to pay part of their own way.  

I gleaned this from a Wall Street Journal profile of Ted Forstmann, the financier who teamed with fellow one-percenter John Walton to found the Children’s Scholarship Fund in 1999. CSF, which has support from Democrats and Republicans, has enabled thousands of inner-city parents to send their kids to a school of their choice.

Forstmann had two important realizations: first, that parental commitment is essential to a child’s success in school and, second, that one of the best ways to keep parents closely involved is to ask them to pay for a portion of the child’s scholarship:

Mr. Forstmann has long argued that all the money dumped into public education budgets misses the element most crucial to the schools' success: active parental involvement.

His solution to getting them in the game has been requiring the parents to contribute between 25% and 75% of the scholarship award, based on need. That's it.

The parents can pick any private school they desire. Many go straight to neighborhood parochial schools, once the sturdy adjunct to many urban public systems. Asked how they assure the quality of the choices, Scholarship Fund President Darla Romfo says, "We don't decide what is a good school; they do." And if they don't like that school, they're free to switch the scholarship to another.

Reading the Forstmann profile this morning jogged my memory about something Michele Bachmann said in last night’s GOP debate.

Bachmann said that almost everybody should pay something in the way of federal income taxes, and that includes poor people. Nobody can really vote on fiscal policy unless they have some kind of tax bite.

Bachmann suggested that even the poor could afford to pay $10 in federal income taxes—she described this as the price of two McDonald’s Happy Meals.

I don’t know if this is practical, but it’s an intriguing idea and I hope Bachmann will discuss it further in future debates.