Bradley Foundation Puts School Choice on the Map

  • Education
  • 1986

Education policy doesn’t change overnight; it must be nurtured until its moment arrives. The organization that did most to incubate America’s expanded interest in school choice was the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. In 1986, Bradley allocated $75,000 to fund the writing of an influential book by education scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe that laid out clear empirical data in support of increased parental options in schooling. After its publication, Bradley provided an additional $300,000 to distribute the book widely. In its home state, Bradley was also instrumental in founding the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a think-tank that concentrated on education policy in its early years. Bradley also provided other infrastructure that helped the state of Wisconsin create pioneering programs, beginning in 1990, that provided low-income parents with publicly funded vouchers they could use to send their children to private schools. In parallel, Bradley itself supported various privately funded scholarships for low-income students. These could be used not only at private but also at religious schools.

As interest in vouchers and better choices in schooling soared in Wisconsin, demand began to outstrip the capacity of private schools. So in 1995 the legislature also added religious schools to the options available to parents. A lawsuit was brought against the state program alleging that this was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. When an injunction against the vouchers threatened the academic careers of several thousand Milwaukee children already enrolled in voucher schools, the Bradley Foundation stepped in with a million dollars to fund their tuition while the legal maneuvering proceeded. Bradley also put up close to a million dollars over a period of years to defend the program in court. After long battling, this ultimately resulted in two landmark wins before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, upholding the choice program and allowing its extension to religious schools in 1998. In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court concurred that school-choice programs are constitutional even if parents use them to send their children to religious schools.

The demand for private- and religious-school vouchers in Milwaukee, so great that there were again no slots left in participating schools by 2001, next spurred Bradley to offer a $20 million grant to increase the capacity of the participating schools. The resulting expansions allowed schools to accept additional students, and ensured that Milwaukee parents had not just theoretical educational choices for their children but real ones. By the 2015 school year, Milwaukee families could choose from either their local public school or one of 122 private and religious schools participating in the city’s Parental Choice Program. Nearly 30,000 Milwaukee children attended one of the voucher schools. Counterpart programs had been created in Racine (20 schools) and statewide (98 more private and religious schools).

This great Milwaukee experiment powered by the Bradley Foundation was watched intently by advocates and opponents of school choice all across the country. It eventually spawned scores of other city and statewide scholarship programs. It also encouraged the formation of new public attitudes that allowed multiple forms of school choice, including the charter-school movement, to become mass phenomena.