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Chapter 10: Give Locally, Achieve Nationally

New York City’s influential data-based bail reform, described in the last chapter, is an excellent illustration of how philanthropists who solve local problems in creative ways can then find their contributions echoing on the national stage. Another crystalline example of this is the Bradley Foundation’s sponsorship of school-choice successes in Milwaukee. Bradley pried open the door for much more school choice across the nation.

In a 1990s presentation to the Council on Foundations, Bradley president Michael Joyce and his staff encapsulated the ideal that underlay all of the foundation’s philanthropy: “Individuals coming together in communities as proud, self-governing, personally responsible citizens, capable once again of running their own lives and affairs, freed from the paternalistic oversight and interference of bureaucratic elites.” School choice fit this vision perfectly. Its goal was to liberate parents from unresponsive bureaucracies and give them the tools to make educational choices themselves on behalf of their children.

The battle still rages. Defenders of the status quo continue to resist the decentralization and de-monopolization of public schooling. Some jurisdictions now offer parents wide and wondrous choices, while others allow nothing but the conventional assigned public school. Growing numbers of places, though, fall somewhere between those two poles. (For much more detail on how philanthropists have advanced school choice and education reform generally, see The Philanthropy ­Roundtable’s several guidebooks on giving to schools, and our list of Major Achievements in Education Philanthropy.)

Today’s explosion of new school offerings would be hard to imagine absent the pioneering Milwaukee experiments of the Bradley Foundation.

Scores of cities and states are now tinkering with alternatives like charter schools, privately funded tuition vouchers, state education tax credits, mechanisms for including religious schools among family options, and choice (rather than assignment) of district schools. Places like ­Washington, D.C., and New Orleans that were one-size-fits-all, ­single-option educational deserts a decade ago are now bursting with variety and excellence. The U.S. will never go back to the old ­factory-style ­public-school model of the past.

Today’s explosion of new school offerings would be hard to imagine absent the pioneering Milwaukee experiments funded during the 1980s and ’90s by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Since 1985, Bradley has spent more than $75 million on school choice, primarily for schools serving the lowest-income families. The foundation’s efforts proved both that there is an enormous appetite among urban parents for better educational choices, and that inventive independent schools of various kinds can take children who were moldering in conventional public schools and propel them into mainstream success.

Bradley’s money was invested in exceptionally canny and creative ways, so as to bring success on both local and national levels. The local grantmaking, focused on neglected students in Bradley’s own backyard, was the indispensable beginning. It shifted school choice from the realm of promising theory to proven practical strategy. It produced a gratifying crop of poster children illustrating the human fruits of an approach that respects the right of a parent to seek the school match that best fits her child.

When future historians look back at the last quarter century, they will identify the school-choice experiments that began in Wisconsin as one of the great success stories of public-policy philanthropy in our era. The lessons for other public-policy philanthropists are many: Ground your investments on solid intellectual work by fresh-thinking scholars. Seize political opportunities. Build broad coalitions, including with unexpected allies. Make bold investments and sustain them. Work across a wide range of fronts—not only offering direct aid but also paying for the intellectual, communications, political, and legal work needed to build, sustain, and protect the charitable breakthrough. Donors who understand these precedents will be better equipped to instigate or accelerate policy reforms in other areas as well.

The story begins long before the Bradley Foundation became a force in philanthropy. In 1955, economists Milton and Rose Friedman proposed giving the parents of school-age children vouchers worth “a sum equal to the estimated cost of educating a child in a government school, provided that at least this sum was spent on education in an approved school.... The injection of competition would do much to promote a healthy variety of schools.”

A separate movement for school choice began to emerge in black communities in the 1960s and 1970s. The activists who supported it were not reading the libertarian theories of the Friedmans. Instead, they saw vouchers as tools for empowering parents to exert more control over schools in poor neighborhoods that were doing little more than warehousing students.

Neither the libertarians nor the black activists got much traction on their own. Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s the ­Bradley Foundation managed to marry the two movements. By offering ­generous private financial support, the foundation moved the discussion beyond rhetoric into real life, and linked two strange bedfellows in a powerful alliance.

Bradley’s engagement started in 1986 when it provided a grant of $75,000 to launch research by John Chubb and Terry Moe, two scholars who wanted to look deeply into the alarming failures of America’s urban schools. Four years later when Chubb and Moe were completing their work, the foundation ramped up its investment with a new gift of $300,000 to make sure that their results were distributed widely and given a full public airing.

Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools became one of the most important books on education in a generation when it was published in 1990. Chubb and Moe marshaled a range of evidence to show that centralized government schools, shackled by bureaucracy and teacher unions, were incapable of performing as well as decentralized schools. Using data from the Department of Education, the authors showed that public education’s problems were so fundamental that solving them required a new set of schools that relied on competition. “We believe existing institutions cannot solve the problem, because they are the problem—and that the key to better schools is institutional reform,” they wrote. They called for something along the lines of what the Friedmans and the black activists had suggested.

The book was persuasive on its own terms, but it gained special notice because it was published by the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank known for its conventional, establishmentarian tendencies—exactly the sort of place that isn’t supposed to favor a system-shocking idea like school choice. This wasn’t the predictable product of a conservative think tank driven by ideology, so it attracted special attention from the media and policymakers.

The Bradley Foundation had known its grant to obscure scholars operating in a different ideological milieu was risky. “There were some questions around the board table about whether we should support Brookings,” recalls Bradley vice president Dan Schmidt. “But it was definitely the right thing to do.” In the end, the gamble paid off in spades.

Around the same time, the Bradley Foundation helped start the ­Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank devoted to state issues. The new organization produced a series of reports calling attention to the need for school reform in Wisconsin. This included one report written by Chubb that previewed the arguments he would make in his book with Moe.

That set the stage for the next important development: a 1988 budget proposal from Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson to start a school-choice program. It went nowhere because conventional partisan politics got in the way. Thompson was a Republican, and his natural allies on school choice were black community leaders who were predominantly Democrats. There was no existing mechanism for political collaboration.

Undaunted, Thompson began a deliberate campaign to reach across the aisle. He put on a school-reform conference in Milwaukee that featured Chubb and Moe. He attracted the interest of a black Democratic state legislator named Polly Williams. She knew about school choice from her days as a community activist, when she saw choice as an attractive alternative to desegregation policies that had bused many black children from their neighborhoods to put them in predominantly white schools.

Working with Thompson, Williams proposed legislation that would create a school-choice pilot program for poor families. It was small and limited, affecting only about 1,000 students and restricted to ­non-religious schools. But it was a start. And it would grow.

The first phase of the Bradley Foundation’s commitment to school choice involved helping create the conditions for this breakthrough legislative success. The second phase involved fending off counterattacks. The new pilot program immediately came under fierce legal challenge. Bradley provided $500,000 between 1988 and 1992 to bring in attorney Clint Bolick, then with the Landmark Legal Foundation, to defend the program in the courtroom. In 1992, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the school-choice program was valid under the state constitution. Reformers had jumped a critical hurdle.

Yet new challenges awaited. Blocked by law from attending Catholic or other religious schools, voucher recipients found that their actual options for finding seats were quite limited. In the program’s first year, only 341 students were able to use their vouchers. So in 1992, the Bradley Foundation donated $1.5 million to Partners Advancing Values in Education. This group provided private scholarships to low-income students who wanted to attend private schools, including religious ones. Local business leaders in Milwaukee chipped in another $2.5 million. The short-term goal was to help students get educated. The long-term goal was to build a political constituency that would favor expansion of the state’s school-choice pilot.

PAVE announced it could offer 1,900 children private scholarships. Twice that number of applications poured in. “The Bradley ­Foundation was important to us on an intellectual level, convincing us that we were running a demonstration project rather than a charity,” said Dan McKinley of PAVE. “When all those applications came in, and we had to turn away so many people, it became clear to us that we had to fight for public policy.”

The private scholarships provided by PAVE were received with hosannas. Milwaukee families were stirred to new hope for an even wider solution. Three years later, the Bradley Foundation realized its goal. The state of Wisconsin approved a much larger school choice program that would provide publicly funded vouchers to as many as 7,000 students. And it would let them attend religious schools.

Opponents convinced the Wisconsin Supreme Court to issue an injunction against the expanded program just days before the start of the school year. Families’ plans were smashed. In order to allow students who had been promised state-funded vouchers to follow through on their enrollments in alternative private schools, PAVE raised $1.9 million in philanthropic money in just nine days, much of it coming from the Bradley Foundation. Children who would have been stranded in a legal limbo were saved for that school year.

It was just a one-year emergency rescue, though. The legal challenge orchestrated by the ACLU still hung over the choice families. Then Wisconsin’s attorney general, tasked with defending the public program passed by state legislators, announced that he was politically opposed to school choice.

The Bradley Foundation responded rapidly to this legal crisis. It donated $350,000 to allow Governor Thompson to hire Kenneth Starr, a former U.S. solicitor general regarded as one of the best lawyers in the country, to defend the state statute. The judicial war rumbled on for two years. Meantime, private philanthropy kept the existing choice students from being bounced out of their schools.

Finally, in 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court came down in favor of the expanded school-choice program. The Bradley Foundation hailed the result in a statement: “Low-income parents in Milwaukee today have been given a freedom previously reserved for the affluent. They will use it to add immeasurably to their children’s lives through education, and, in doing so, they will fully satisfy the aspirations that have caused the Bradley Foundation to place parental choice in education first and highest among its policy objectives.”

The Milwaukee school-choice program continued to weather attacks. As of 2015 this included ongoing litigation by the ACLU, echoed by threats from the Obama administration’s Justice Department, this time using disability law as a wedge to try to shut down the tuition payments. But the program has become a familiar part of education in the city, relied on by thousands of families.

To make sure that the offer of school choice is not a hollow one due to lack of capacity at alternative schools, the Bradley Foundation has spent generously to help Milwaukee’ private and religious schools expand so they could enroll more low-income students. This included a 2001 gift of what was up until then Bradley largest grant ever: $20 million to PAVE to help expand school capacity. Since then, Bradley has made an even larger commitment to choice: $27 million to the Charter School Growth Fund, which provides financing, business advice, and other assistance to charter schools that serve minority and low-income populations.

School choice in Milwaukee expanded from a small pilot project into a thriving mainstream reality, and the city became a beacon for the whole country.

By the 2014-15 academic year, more than 26,000 students (a quarter of all the school-age children in the city) were attending 113 schools under the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. They received vouchers worth up to nearly $7,000, allowing them to choose from a panoply of participating schools. A comprehensive analysis of the program revealed not only that participating parents were happy, but that even families who weren’t involved benefited, because the increased competition the program produced forced modest achievement gains in Milwaukee’s public schools. Vouchers allowing students to attend private schools, in other words, also improved the public schools those students left.

Academic achievement rates among participating students were modest. Voucher students showed a small edge in reading, but not in math. Results in areas like student safety, family satisfaction, and education perseverance, however, were rosier. School-choice students graduate from high school and enroll in college at significantly higher rates than equivalent public-school peers. Moreover, school choice saves money: Because the vouchers the state provides are not nearly as generous as what it gives to public schools on a per-student basis, the program saves taxpayers more than $50 million every year.

As school choice in Milwaukee expanded from a small pilot project into a thriving mainstream reality for an entire large city, ­Milwaukee became a beacon for the whole country. School choice there was studied intensively by both the advocates and enemies of reform. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2002 that school choice is constitutional removed one more major barrier to its spread to other places. While choice is still not as common as supporters would like, programs based on Milwaukee’s model of low-income assistance now exist in ­Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Ohio, D.C., Georgia, Mississippi, ­Oklahoma, Utah, and other places. The explosion of charter schooling across the U.S. was also heavily inspired by the Milwaukee success.

Bradley’s example in the arena of school choice demonstrates the value, in public-policy philanthropy, of boldness, patience, and unswerving devotion to a cause. The foundation was indispensable in ­transforming school choice from mere concept to active movement. The size and power of the vested interests in America’s educational bureaucracies will prevent school decentralization and choice from ever coming easily. But if the reform effort continues to expand, it will be due almost entirely to philanthropists who have been willing to invest for the long haul.

Policy Player Profile: Betsy Devos

“I was optimistic educational choice would happen much more quickly than it has,” says Betsy DeVos, reflecting on her work of more than a quarter century. “I’ve learned that this is a generational battle and change takes a long time.”

She should know. Her activism began in the 1980s, when her family began to support low-income families at a private school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Since then, she has continued to push for school choice as both a philanthropist and a political leader. “Education is the biggest issue we face as a nation,” she says. “Too many children don’t graduate from high school. When children don’t develop to their full potential, it’s such a waste.”

For philanthropists drawn to efforts to improve public policy, the first step can be the hardest. “Getting involved in reform can be intimidating,” DeVos admits, because politics is controversial. Her solution is to focus on personal lives rather than political schemes. “I’m always encouraging people to come with me and visit schools that work,” she says. “Look into the eyes of the children who are benefitting from a good education—and then think about how we’re denying the same opportunity to the ones who aren’t here. I just have to see the faces of these kids. It makes all the criticism worth it.”

DeVos didn’t plan to become a champion of school choice. “Our interest evolved,” she says, referring to herself and her husband, Dick DeVos, the son of a co-founder of Amway and himself a successful businessman.

“When we had young children, we knew that we could provide them with a good education,” she says. “We knew we had a choice.” She also recognized that many other parents lacked the financial means to make their own choices about where to send their children to school. “We became aware of the Potter’s House, an urban Christian school in Grand Rapids,” she says. “We were struck by how hard many of the parents worked to pay the tuition.”

The DeVoses started to sponsor needy students on an individual basis, and their philanthropic commitment to the school grew. “We kept returning to the fact that we could choose the right school for our kids—and our belief that other parents should have the same options for their own children, no matter what their zip codes.”

In 1990, Dick DeVos won election to Michigan’s State Board of Education, and the DeVoses began a decade of intense political activity. “Every night at the dinner table, we talked about improving opportunities for education.” Betsy joined the boards of two nonprofit groups that promoted school choice: the American Education Reform Council, and Children First America. “Our initial goal was to persuade people about the wisdom and logic of choice,” she says.

In 1993, the couple helped Michigan pass its first charter-school bill. Three years later, Betsy became chairwoman of Michigan’s Republican Party—and used her position to call for additional reforms. Michigan’s constitution expressly forbade tax dollars from supporting private schools, so in 2000 she and Dick led an effort to amend it through a ballot initiative. Proposal 1, as it was called, would have lifted the ban, and promised vouchers to students in the worst-performing schools across the state. On Election Day, however, voters rejected it by a margin of two to one. “We were a little premature,” she says. “People weren’t ready for it.”

After suffering such a stinging defeat, many philanthropists might have given up. DeVos, by contrast, gained new appreciation for the fact that transformational change requires patience. She resolved to keep going. “It took a long time for our education system to get where it is today,” she says. “It’s going to take a long time for us to change it.”

The DeVoses made one more major foray into electoral politics: Dick ran for governor as a Republican in 2006. He lost to the Democratic incumbent, Jennifer Granholm. (The loss was partly due to counter-efforts by another policy-oriented philanthropist and politics funder, Jon Stryker—see the 2006 entry on our Annex list of Major Projects in U.S. Public-Policy Philanthropy.)

Through it all, Betsy remained committed to education reform. She helped to fund and lead several organizations working to expand school choice across the country. At present she is on the board of the Great Lakes Education Project and is chairwoman at the American Federation for Children. The AFC seeks to empower children by breaking down barriers to educational choice so families can find and pay for the school that is best for their student. The federation works with state allies to eliminate caps on charter schools and school choice programs, push tax credits and school vouchers through legislatures, and otherwise create new options for low-income children trapped in poor public schools.

“I’m much more optimistic today about the prospects for educational choice,” she says. “Hundreds of thousands of students benefit from it right now, and we’re continuing to see positive steps in more and more states. We won’t be turned back now. The opposition will continue to fight, but the momentum has shifted.” She points to Florida, Indiana, and Louisiana as three states that have enjoyed special success.

After decades of involvement as a policy-reform donor, what lessons has DeVos learned? First, that charitable efforts must be backed by practical political activism—or even the best ideas are likely to be ignored. Changing policy always makes enemies, so reformist donors must cover the backs of legislators willing to stand up to the status quo.

“This is really important: You need to devote dollars to politics, advocacy, education, and implementation. That means three different kinds of groups all working under the same umbrella and toward the same strategic vision. You can have the same board and staff, though you have to be meticulous with how you allocate time. You need to be careful about documentation.”

The approach of many donors, DeVos argues, is too narrow: They support 501(c)(3) groups that fund scholarships for children, and that inform legislators about the benefits of school choice. “That matters, but it’s not enough. You can’t neglect the political side. We need to elect allies and defeat the politicians who stand in the way of reform. We also have to put money behind legislation.”

Personnel matters, too. “Lots of people give to organizations that are staffed with highly paid consultants whose primary interest is in keeping their retainers—and from these groups, we don’t see a lot of production. They don’t put a lot of lead on their targets,” she suggests. “We need people with passion, who are dedicated to the issue because they care about it deeply and stretch every dollar as far as they can.”

In recent years, DeVos has dropped the familiar term “school choice” in favor of another: “I refer to it as ‘educational choice,’ because ‘school’ suggests a building and you don’t need a building to learn,” she says. “A lot of educators and entrepreneurs are getting away from the batch-processing method of education. We’re not just talking about helping low-income kids have access to better schools anymore, but also about using new technologies and methods.”

Digital learning excites her in particular. “It’s really just getting started,” she says. “Children pick up technology so quickly. I was bored in high school, and I bet a lot of students are bored today. Sitting in a classroom and listening to a lecture isn’t the only way for students to be taught. We can find ways to use technology to make learning fun.”

“In the future, education will look a lot different,” DeVos argues. “We’re going to see options that we can’t even imagine right now because nobody has thought of them yet.” Nothing is inevitable, though, and philanthropists can be important influences. New representatives bearing new ideas may be the most pressing need. “We have to get involved in politics and public policy to make sure these options can flourish—so that children can flourish.”

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