Chapter 5: Advocacy and Policy Change
For donors interested in funding public education and policy advocacy in support of Catholic schools, two anecdotes may be instructive.
One: In Wichita, Kansas, all Catholic primary and secondary schools have been tuition-free since 2002. How did that happen? Local pastor Thomas McGread challenged his flock to donate 5 percent of their incomes so all children in the parish could attend the elementary school for free. When his congregation rose to the challenge, he asked them to donate 8 percent so the parish could pay the Catholic high-school tuition of any local child. Again, the parishioners stepped up. Today, under the leadership of Bishop Michael Jackels, Catholic schooling in Wichita continues to grow—enrollment now stands at its highest level since 1967.
Two: In March 2015 more than 100 lay Catholic leaders, including donors like former American Express president Alfred Kelly and former PricewaterhouseCoopers CEO Samuel Di Piazza, gathered with Cardinal Timothy Dolan to discuss a new political action committee aimed at preserving New York’s Catholic schools. The product of those conversations, “Catholics Count,” has already raised $3 million and has a goal of raising $10 million over the next four years to help it compete meaningfully in the state’s capital. “Finally the Catholic Church will have a voice in Albany commensurate with our numbers and with the contributions our church makes to our state and to our communities,” says donor Robert Flanigan.
The first story shows that members of the wider public can be mobilized to support Catholic schools if someone will start things with a simple ask. It just takes leadership to energize the latent support for Catholic education. The second tale demonstrates that impressive things can happen when Church leaders, philanthropists, and other advocates for Catholic education combine forces behind a focused goal.
Keep those two examples in mind as you read this chapter on what donors can do to turn opinion and public policy in helpful directions. Catholic-school backers should be energetic in bringing the benefits of their institutions to the attention of fellow citizens. And they should join in cooperative efforts to nudge law and policy in constructive directions.
Communicating with the general public
Much of this chapter will deal with efforts to make public policies more friendly to Catholic education. But it’s worth noting that simply making the general public more aware of Catholic schools is also important work. As parents, neighbors, voters, and citizens, families need to know about Catholic schools and their many benefits to students and surrounding communities.
Several organizations engage methodically in this activity. The National Catholic Educational Association has been explaining Catholic schools to Americans for a century. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sometimes engages on K-12 education.
The Council for American Private Education supports Catholic as well as other non-government schools by serving as a unified voice on issues important to private education. It advocates, informs private-school leaders about relevant developments, and sponsors gatherings. The National Association of Independent Schools also produces research, provides guidance on governance and other operational issues, and offers professional development opportunities for Catholic and other private schools.
There are also lots of state and local groups supporting Catholic schooling. Donors eager to build wider understanding and support for Catholic schools need not start from scratch. In many cases they can reinforce organizations with networks and infrastructure already in place.
Promoting changes in public policy
A reliable stream of operational funding is essential to all organizations. Because Catholic schools often serve low-income families, they have to keep tuition far below what other private schools charge. Yet they are aiding American society, both by turning underprivileged kids into graduates and solid citizens at unusually high rates, and by saving taxpayers the much higher cost of educating those children in public schools. Accordingly a highly important, and easily justified, component of Catholic-school advocacy is the creation, expansion, and defense of laws that allow parents to have their choices of accredited private or religious schools for their children matched with some sort of public funding.
The Hilton Foundation is now putting more effort into expanding public funding of choice programs, and helping schools participate. “We initially focused our grantmaking in Los Angeles,” reports Sister Rosemarie Nassif. Then the foundation shifted toward “private-school choice advocacy and implementation. We want to ensure Catholic schools take advantage of such programs.”
“The highest-leverage strategy for saving inner-city Catholic schools is through school choice,” suggests entrepreneur and donor Leo Linbeck. “Small amounts of money invested to get states to create or increase tax credits and vouchers can go a long way.”
These programs enable low-income and working-class families to give their children much improved futures. They also make it likelier that Catholic schools will exist in the future for other families to take advantage of. Even the fragmentary tax credit and voucher programs that currently exist have been very helpful in generating funds and stabilizing enrollments at Catholic schools.
A report on this question by the American Catholic bishops urges that:
We need to intensify our efforts in advocating just and equitable treatment of our students and teachers in federal and state-funded educational programs.... Advocacy is not just the responsibility of parents and teachers, but of all members of the Catholic community. As the primary educators of their children, parents should have the right to choose the school best suited for them. The entire Catholic community should be encouraged to advocate for parental school choice and personal and corporate tax credits, which will help parents to fulfill their responsibility.
Entanglements with government have their downside. Joe Womac of the Specialty Family Foundation warns schools against thinking that choice reimbursements will relieve them of the need to pay close attention to internal operations, cost control, enrollment management, and fundraising. Most public voucher and tax-credit measures today cover only a small fraction of total expenses per pupil. Ed Kirby, former executive at the Walton Family Foundation, encourages schools to run themselves in ways that would keep them stable even if there was no public funding. Then the public reimbursements, if they materialize, offer opportunities to grow and become more excellent.
Types of school-choice programs
The first modern school-choice payments were enacted in Wisconsin in 1989. Today, 57 different school-choice funding programs exist in 29 states. Vouchers and tax credits are the commonest offerings.
Providing vouchers to parents allows education dollars to “follow the child” to the school his family considers best for him. As of 2015, 24 of the 57 state choice programs were vouchers. The tax-credit approach recognizes nonprofits that exist to provide scholarships to low-income students so they can attend religious or private schools, and allows tax credits for individuals or businesses that donate money to these nonprofits. As of 2015, 20 of the 57 choice programs were tax-credit scholarship programs. Some states also allow parents to save up K-12 school tuition in education savings accounts that somewhat reduce the family’s tax exposure. A few states provide individual tax credits for tuition payments as partial help so parents can access religious and private schools.
Programs vary in the restrictions they place on student eligibility. Twenty-three programs are means-tested to keep them focused on low-income families. Eight programs are limited to children who are attending the state’s worst public schools. Fourteen programs are aimed at students with special needs.
The total number of students with access to non-public school-choice assistance has grown rapidly. In 2000, just 29,000 students attended a religious or private school with public support. In 2014-15 nearly 354,000 did. This expansion is likely to extend further, perhaps into states like New York in the near future. At the moment, though, six states—Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin—account for nearly nine out of ten of the students who have school-choice benefits.
Effects of programs
The effects on students of attending a private school through a voucher or tax-credit program have been documented in many studies. As early as 1998, research on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program found that students who enrolled in a participating private school using a voucher had faster math gains than identical students who applied for, but did not receive, a voucher. A 2011 report by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice conglomerated ten voucher studies and found that six showed positive results for all types of students, three found positive results on some student groups, and only one found no positive results. A randomized experimental study of the Washington, D.C., voucher program found that the program had a large positive impact on the high school graduation rates of participating students.
In addition to their value to students, research has found that voucher programs have positive competitive effects on educational systems as well. In Louisiana, the voucher program positively influenced the performance of the lowest-rated public schools. In Indiana, the voucher program improved public schools’ reading scores. Research on Ohio’s EdChoice program found that the competitive effects created by vouchers had a positive impact on the public elementary and middle schools whose families were eligible for vouchers.
There are also benefits in terms of parental satisfaction. A 2002 study found that voucher families reported higher levels of satisfaction on 16 variables, including “academic program,” “teacher skills,” “school discipline,” “safety,” and “teacher-parent relations.” Other research found that parents who used a voucher were 25 percentage points more likely to rate their school as “A” or “B.”
Limits on programs
School-choice programs often have restrictions that limit families’ access. One study sorted these restrictions into three categories:
- Student restrictions that exclude children based on demographic characteristics or via a cap on the total size of the program
- Purchasing-power restrictions that limit the amount of money a program will provide to a family
- School restrictions that reduce the range of schools from which families can select
A sample of 21 choice programs were studied using this framework. The highest rated (Florida’s McKay Voucher Program) earned an A-minus. Fourteen programs were scored between B and B-plus. Six earned a C or lower. Most of today’s school-choice programs are very partial and thin, and the various limits on eligibility end up excluding most families. So while the momentum in this area is promising, there is enormous room for expansion and improvement.
Cumbersome program demands on schools can also lead many of them to decline to participate. The red tape in some of today’s school-choice programs includes banning student admissions criteria, requiring certain curricula, insisting students are offered chances to opt out of religious activities, tuition controls, test requirements, teacher and administrator credentialing, stipulations on instructional hours, open-enrollment requirements, and heavy paperwork for each participating student. A quarter or more of all schools opt not to accept vouchers when they come with these kinds of strings, particularly if the payments are small to begin with.
One study of schools that decided not to participate in state school-choice programs found that the reform most likely to change their mind would be to expand eligibility to all families (38 percent of non-participating schools said that would alter their decision). Raising voucher amounts was the next strongest influencer.
Families using Catholic schools typically take advantage of choice programs, where they exist, at rates over 70 percent. This reflects the Catholic-school mission of particularly serving the poor. Catholic schools are therefore disproportionately affected when onerous regulations are woven into choice programs. Donors should be mindful of this downside as they advocate for particular details in choice programs.
Accountability in school-choice programs
In contrast to the intrusive regulations that weaken some school-choice programs, many of the largest programs include useful measures that hold schools accountable for performance results. Requiring private schools to administer standardized tests to participating students in order to ensure that the schools are helping kids learn is an example. In Louisiana, all private schools receive a performance rating based on these test results, and schools with persistently low performance are removed from the program. In Indiana, all religious and private schools are evaluated under the same A-F rating system used for public schools, and private schools with persistently low ratings can be suspended from the choice program. In Milwaukee, participating choice schools must publicly report the test scores of their voucher students.
These accountability measures are designed to ensure that funds are well spent and that families have access to high-quality choices. The Thomas Fordham Institute argues that good accountability measures on private school-choice programs may be beneficial for at least six reasons:
- They create incentives for schools to boost student achievement
- They give parents access to crucial information they need to judge schools
- They won’t scare away reputable schools
- They work proportionately—schools that accept more voucher students and thus rely more heavily on state funding are held to higher levels of accountability
- They make fair comparisons of schools easier
Hard evidence exists that implementing accountability standards does indeed increase student performance. For instance, when new legislation required schools participating in the Milwaukee choice program to annually test all voucher students in grades 3-8 and grade 10 using the statewide knowledge exams, studies showed a significant positive impact on the achievement of all subgroups. Gains were strongest for students with higher levels of initial ability.
Not everything of value produced by schools can be easily measured. Catholic schools in particular often distinguish themselves less in test scores than in things like high graduation rates, high levels of college persistence and success by their alumni, high levels of service and good citizenship among their students, and so forth. Catholic schools put heavy emphasis on character traits and skills that may not yield higher end-of-year test scores, though they have great life value.
So donors will want to avoid a sole fixation on test scores. Yet they should not get swept into the forswearing of annual tests and other hard measures of performance—an increasingly trendy and ideological position that only makes it easier for mediocre or incompetent educators to coast, and that shifts the conversation about schooling to just pouring in more inputs (money) rather than pursuing better outcomes. The hard glare of performance tests makes the educational establishment sweaty, but is ultimately vital to helping children. Donors needn’t get drawn deeply into the testing debate, but they must understand the basic contours—because the topic is important and colors many other elements of today’s school-reform tussle.
Active state and national advocacy
Some states have single-purpose advocacy organizations whose reason for being is to advance parental options in schooling. School Choice Ohio would be an example. There are also a number of excellent education-advocacy organizations that operate at the national level while also sponsoring state-level affiliates or state-level activities. These include 50CAN, Students First, Stand for Children, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and others. Donors can support useful advocacy by working through such organizations. They will need to find out which have operations in their states, which have recently shown the ability to be successful, and which are fully committed to Catholic schools.
A donor should also take the time to understand her state’s particular political context and history with school-choice legislation and proposals. These will help determine the best strategies. Historically, notes Tom Carroll, president of the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, “school-choice proposals have been more successful below the Mason-Dixon line and in right-to-work states. Yet in states with powerful teacher unions, successes have occurred under strong Republican governors like Mitch Daniels, Tommy Thompson, or Tom Ridge.” With school choice now spreading nationwide, Carroll believes philanthropists can help execute successful campaigns even in previously hostile locations. “Current work in New York and Illinois shows that Democratic constituencies can be pulled together around school choice. It is not easy work, and the odds are steep. But there’s great potential, given the right approach.”
Donors must be prepared for a long haul. The campaign by Indiana school-choice advocates, for instance, took eight years before it produced their landmark school-voucher program. Then more time was required to plan a good roll out. School choice is important, and it requires stamina.
American Federation for Children
The American Federation for Children Growth Fund is a leader across the nation in organizing and providing information on behalf of school choice that includes private and religious schools. As successor to the Alliance for School Choice, which served as the main umbrella organization for a decade, the AFC Growth Fund publishes data on school choice, basic information on programs by state, model legislation, and the annual School Choice Yearbook, which tracks school information and the latest trends in advocacy across the country.
The Growth Fund also invests in states with potential for enacting or expanding school-choice programs. It develops state leaders, communicates with policymakers about the importance of school choice, supports parent advocacy, and helps implement choice programs. As a 501(c)(3) it does not partake in lobbying or direct political work.
Its sister organization the American Federation for Children is a 501(c)(4) organization that is equipped to lobby and advocate with officeholders. A third partner, the American Federation for Children Action Fund, is a 527 political-action committee that supports candidates for political office who have been helpful to the cause of school choice. School reformers in many places have found this tripartite structure of information and local support, lobbying, and political backup for allies to be the most effective way to support constructive change.
The American Federation for Children has partner organizations in 24 states. These included groups like the Alabama Policy Institute, the Louisiana Federation for Children, Excellent Education for Everyone in New Jersey, and the REACH Foundation in Pennsylvania. Donors interested in choice advocacy should investigate whether their priority states have such partner organizations.
Donor Betsy DeVos, who chairs the boards of both the AFC and the AFC Growth Fund, points out that “successful advocacy requires coordinating a lot of moving parts: identifying potential legislators, educating them about the issue, getting them elected, helping them craft and pass legislation, and helping with implementation once laws are passed to ensure that programs work for children.” Donors should not underestimate the implementation task. It may be less glamorous than passing legislation, but it’s important.
Choice legislation only works if, for example, there are high-quality private schools from which to choose, and parents have good information on the available options, and the government bodies charged with administration are helpful. There are always early-stage hiccups to address. Allies need to be rallied to support parents and programs. Once a governor’s signature is affixed to a law, donors should help make sure it is executed so as to succeed.
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and his economist wife, Rose Friedman, established the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice in 1996. It is a leading advocate for universal school choice today. The foundation provides in-depth research reports—including gold-standard national and state studies of choice programs, plus polling data. Its major publications include the “ABCs of School Choice,” a national public-opinion survey on education, state-level polls on school choice, and pithy white papers on key topics within school choice.
The foundation partners with local nonprofits, schools, businesses, parents, and community members to help them advocate for school choice. It sponsors events and seminars. It helps design programs, supports testimony before state legislatures, and provides grants for state activities. Like the American Federation for Children, the Friedman Foundation works across the policy life cycle—measuring public opinion on school choice, striving to improve it, developing policy, supporting local partners in advocating for change, and following up on implementation issues.
Investing in data collection and research
As existing school-choice programs expand and new ones are created, some donors might want to concentrate on promoting more high-quality choices. Supporting the collection and reporting of student performance data can help separate poor and mediocre schools from those that advance their students. Collecting performance data can also demonstrate the successes of school choice, thereby easing advocacy for new and expanded programs.
Donors might partner with think tanks, universities, or state departments of education to fund rigorous evaluations. National organizations like the Thomas Fordham Institute, the Center for Education Reform, the CATO Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute are deeply involved in this kind of work. So too are state-level think tanks like School Choice Indiana and StudentsFirst PA. Both the Center for Education Reform and the State Policy Network maintain databases of state-based think tanks that are advocating for market-oriented education policies including school choice.
Regardless of how a donor chooses to fund advocacy efforts, it is important to bear in mind that most advocacy will be state-specific. Givers will be most effective if they understand the history of their state programs, their student eligibility rules, what caps they have on the number of students or scholarships, which schools are eligible, the programs’ performance data, and more. In states where programs do not yet exist, donors should learn about previous and/or ongoing efforts to enact school choice.
The type and quality of choice program matters, so donors should make sure policies are drafted with the most recent lessons and successes and pitfalls of other programs in mind. And experience has taught that events during the implementation phase can threaten school choice even after legislative success has been achieved. Beware of low-performing private schools that produce poor results, letting public funds get mismanaged by schools, families failing to participate due to lack of information or transportation gaps, and so forth. Familiarity with the record in other places can prevent these sorts of unnecessary and potentially damaging mishaps.
Investing in marketing
Donors can be enormously helpful to Catholic schools by helping them market themselves to families. As Faith in the Future’s Casey Carter said, “How do you get more revenue? Get more students in the school. How do you do that? Market and sell your product for the first time. But you can’t sell the same old product. You need to compete on both quality and price, and not just your reputation from the past.”
For schools under financial stress, growing your way to balanced books is much preferable to cutting your way to balance. Yet some schools lose or actually turn away potential students because they fail to market themselves and resist things like marginal tuition discounts to bring in additional students.
To help with this, the Specialty Family Foundation in Los Angeles has provided schools with large three-year grants so they could bring in expert marketing help. That allowed them to get serious about outreach, advertising, and development, according to Specialty’s Joe Womac. Too often, he says, Catholic educators “talk about enrollment like they talk about the weather—it’s up one day, down the next, and out of their control. They don’t see themselves as variables at all.”
In many locations, Catholic schools are part of a competitive schools marketplace, yet many families know little about what they really offer. The sector often hasn’t differentiated itself with any specificity. “Part of the reason Catholic schools started to fail is because they didn’t figure out and explain their unique benefits,” argues Katie Everett of the Lynch Foundation.
School leaders need to be encouraged to market themselves not just to parents, but to supporters as well. Parishioners, leaders of the community where the school is located, and potential donors also need to see the value of Catholic schooling. Getting surrounding stakeholders excited about the high mission of these schools, as the Wichita leaders did, as described in the beginning of this chapter, is the best basis for fundraising, suggests donor Christine Healey.
Donors who are involved in education reform broadly can help make sure that when school districts, and cities, and states are considering new policies of educational accountability, teacher effectiveness, classroom technology support, school busing, charter schooling, and so forth, Catholic schools are included in the discussion. As one philanthropist put it at a recent meeting of The Philanthropy Roundtable, “Catholic schools struggle to represent themselves and communicate their value within today’s school reform movement. The broader movement tends to focus on creating new seats. But Catholic schools already have seats—they just haven’t figured out yet how to make these seats and their schools a viable part of the education-reform conversation.”
Finding your place
Donors providing funding to Catholic education should recognize that advocacy, marketing, and policy change are ways to multiply and sustain their influence. Philanthropists who are prepared to add this crucial work to their direct assistance to students and schools should begin by thinking through three questions.
First, what kind of public programs do I want to support? As school-choice legislation has proliferated, it has also diversified. There are vouchers, tax-credits, education savings accounts, and more. Which schools benefit, what students are eligible, how mechanisms of distribution and accountability work—these things all vary. Donors need to set priorities before their advocacy begins.
Second, where do I want to engage? A donor might focus on producing data and research that prove success. Or on wooing policymakers and helping them develop constructive rules for school-choice programs. Or he or she might pay for a public-relations campaign aimed at legislators, families, community leaders, or potential fellow donors. An individual donor might make personal contributions to political campaigns and engage with candidates and elections as a supplement to charitable efforts. In a state that is already over the political hump and is now struggling to implement public spending in ways that really help children and families, a donor might decide to work on measures that improve the supply or quality of schools, the felicity of government administration of the funding, or the accountability of teachers and leaders in the recipient schools.
A third question is, with whom should I partner? Philanthropists ought to avoid reinventing the wheel to the extent possible. Yet they should be picky suitors. Not all organizations and campaigns are created equal. Depending on your goals, it could make sense to work with a particular church leader, with a Catholic-school support organization, with a state advocacy group, or with a major national nonprofit. There are options aplenty.