PAVE-ing a Road to Parental Choice

PAVE-ing a Road to Parental Choice
February 1, 1997

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)

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.

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)