PAVE-ing a Road to Parental Choice

Published February 1, 1997

Michael Joyce is president of the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. The Foundation is devoted to strengthening American democratic capitalism and the institutions, principles, and values which sustain and nurture it. Under Joyce’s leadership, the Bradley Foundation has been a strong supporter of PAVE–Partners Advancing Values in Education–a private scholarship program serving Milwaukee’s inner-city youth. He recently spoke about the program with George Clowes, managing editor of School Reform News.

Clowes: PAVE is one of the oldest and largest private voucher programs. What led to its creation?

Joyce: In March of 1990 the Wisconsin legislature enacted the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). The program has been an essential part of the Milwaukee story. It is important because it authorizes public support for education by providers other than the government.

But the program was severely limited by the legislation. The demand was vastly larger than the capacity of schools that were allowed to participate. So in June of 1992, we announced a major grant to PAVE–Partners Advancing Values in Education. At that time, PAVE was aimed at getting support for four or five specific urban Catholic schools. But we believed in supporting children rather than schools–letting parents make the decision about schools.

Clowes: So you actually had to get the PAVE people to accept a new approach?

Joyce: Exactly. It was one of the hardest things we had to do–sell the PAVE leadership that the way to achieve what they wanted was to set up privately funded scholarship programs. If the four or five schools they supported were in fact effective, the market would demonstrate that. That is, people would choose those schools and they would get exactly what they wanted, while at the same time enabling other schools to participate in the program.

We wanted to shift from support for urban schools to support for urban parents. That was the important shift. We were putting into place a funding program where the funds follow the student.

Clowes: Rather than support private scholarships, why not focus on building support for publicly funded vouchers?

Joyce: When we announced our gift, we said we would support PAVE at the level of $500,000 a year for three years. We did this to demonstrate the viability and efficacy of such a program to lawmakers so that they might expand and make more inclusive the original MPCP legislation.

Clowes: So your goal has always been a much broader choice program than currently exists in Milwaukee?

Joyce: We want to demonstrate that there is a legitimate demand on the part of parents. We also want to use PAVE to show that, if given a choice, many parents will choose a safe, morally sound school in their neighborhood. That school will typically be of some kind of religious formation, even though in many cases only a few of the students are themselves adherents of whatever faith may be central to that school. It was our intention, through the process, to affect the public debate and to lead toward the completion of what we thought was the insufficient legislation that was passed in 1990.

Clowes: How did you make sure that PAVE would influence the public debate?

Joyce: We decided to make this as public as possible. The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute had been doing polling for some years and had found a strong majority support of support for school choice among low-income people in the inner cities. So we had reason to believe this idea would be wildly popular. We set out to speak about it on talk shows and at Rotary clubs–anywhere there was a microphone.

Clowes: How has PAVE been regarded by the press and local government officials?

Joyce: Editorial people were uniformly opposed to any kind of change. We engaged in lots of debates with them. Every time they’d write an editorial, we’d answer it with a letter, though the most powerful letters often came from parents. Only one newspaper in the state editorialized in favor of choice, and that was the black community newspaper in the city of Milwaukee. But talk radio was a real godsend to us. The talk radio people were four-square with us.

Clowes: The political situation also shifted in your direction, didn’t it?

Joyce: Yes. In the spring of 1993, the state superintendent of schools, who was very opposed to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, decided not to run for re-election. Now, typically, the person elected to Superintendent is a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers union. But, lo and behold, a pro-parental choice candidate emerged–a schoolteacher from upstate, from a small town. She was a white woman, a Republican, and she got 70 percent of the black vote in Milwaukee County. In the end, she lost 47 percent to 53 percent, but this gave us a tremendous opportunity for press coverage.

In addition, our mayor John Norquist has been a real champion of school choice. And the former Superintendent of Public Schools in Milwaukee, Howard Fuller, was a silent supporter of choice. In 1995 he resigned from office after a union-supported slate opposed all of his reforms. He’s hugely popular and respected in Milwaukee. On leaving office, he spoke out for the first time about his support for parental choice.

Clowes: Why did you find the politics so important?

Joyce: We needed to build a political movement, not affiliated with the Foundation or the tax-exempt groups it funds, to push for expanding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. We are a private, independent foundation, so we had to sit out that battle. We cannot use our grants for the purpose of affecting legislation. But the groundwork we had laid came to fruition when the local Chamber of Commerce decided to put a half million dollars into lobbying efforts, which they did with great success. A group called Parents for School Choice was set up. This was the activist group that coordinated and organized the campaign to push the legislators in the right direction.

In June 1995, three years to the day from my statement when we started PAVE, the Wisconsin legislature passed the expansion of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. It was the first true voucher system in the U.S. Beginning in the fall of 1995, the program was to provide to parents of up to 7,000 low-income Milwaukee K-12 students with a full choice, including religious schools, through a voucher of approximately $3,500. The Governor signed it into law in August 1995.

Clowes: How did the opponents of choice respond to the expanded legislation?

Joyce: The moment after the governor signed the legislation, the opponents of expanded school choice, led by the American Civil Liberties Union and the teachers union, secured an injunction from the state Supreme Court to halt the program from going forward. Only days before school was to open, the parents who had counted on a new program suddenly had none.

It was at this point that something very, very dramatic happened. PAVE established an emergency fund to enable the children whose enrollments were already under way to continue with school. In a matter of days, with a mixture of small donations from individuals and big checks from companies and foundations, including ours, $1.6 million was raised to provide over 4,600 scholarships for 1995-96. Amazingly, we didn’t lose anybody.

This success was made possible by two things. The first one was a picture in the Sunday morning paper of a mother and two children weeping in front of the Catholic school that they would have been going to the following Monday. The picture was so dramatic that people began calling and asking how they could help.

Then, Charles Sykes opened his radio talk show on the Monday morning saying he was going to put $1,000 into the emergency fund. By the end of the day I think he had raised over $100,000. On Wednesday, we came in with a million dollars and within ten days we had raised $1.6 million. I don’t claim any particular personal credit for it, but I’m immensely proud of what was done. I think it all goes back to laying the groundwork.

This past fall, we had to replicate what we did in August of 1995. We were again successful — we doubled not only the amount, to $4 million, but also we doubled the number of givers to 800.

Clowes: What has happened to the expanded choice legislation in the courts?

Joyce: The state supreme court had handed down an injunction, enjoining the program from going forward. The choice opponents based their case on the establishment clause. They contend that vouchers are equivalent to state funding of religious institutions. The choice supporters contend that education is a public good, even if it is not provided directly by the state. In February 1996, the Court finally heard the case. Parents for School Choice organized a parade of buses of parents to go to the state capital. They held a big demonstration in the state rotunda, singing “We Shall Overcome,” the echoes of which could be heard in the courtroom. A month later, the court handed down its opinion, a 3-3 stalemate.

Clowes: What happens with a tie vote?

Joyce: The tie demolished the argument that the expansion of the MPCP was not duly enacted legislation. That was good for the program, because that argument was the basis for the injunction. But the tie also meant that the case was sent back to the lower court, and now it has to work its way back up through the appeals process. So the program is still in this never-never land.*

We do not expect to win in the lower courts. It will have to be ultimately decided by the state Supreme Court on appeal. In all probability, we will prevail when we get there. The question is, how long is that going to take?

Clowes: Even if the program succeeds with the Wisconsin state supreme court, will the U.S. Supreme Court allow it?

Joyce: We used to say it was axiomatic that the case would go to the U.S. Supreme Court. But there’s reason to believe that the teachers union may not be prepared to do that. For them, it would be all or nothing. If they were to lose at the U.S. Supreme Court, their entire enterprise would be cracked wide open. They might be better off fighting state by state. They might say, “We’ll write off this state, but we’ll resist any effort to expand it.”

Of course, when we prevail here, the object we have in mind is to extend the program to higher income levels, moving always in the hope of achieving a full voucher system.

After this interview took place, the Chicago Tribune reported (on January 16) that a state court again struck down the voucher program’s expansion. Judge Paul Higginbotham ruled that the expansion of the program to include religious schools violated the Wisconsin state constitution. He also rejected expanding the program to serve more students (Governor Tommy Thompson wanted to go from 1,650 students to 15,000), determining that to do so would change the nature of the program from the “pilot” project approved by state legislators to an unconstitutional “local or private bill.” Voucher proponents are expected to appeal Higginbotham’s decision.