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Catholic Education

Despite low profile, Catholics played key roles


While the Milwaukee archdiocese has long been part of the campaign for vouchers, Catholic officials have tried to keep a low profile in the effort.

“One of my concerns was that this not be viewed as a Catholic issue,” said John Norris, superintendent of Catholic education for the Milwaukee archdiocese, in an interview last summer. “We needed to, from the get-go, make it a parent issue. We needed parents to very much take leadership.”

In its political advocacy for vouchers, the archdiocese forged alliances with business groups, principally the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, who backed school choice as a sort of market-driven vehicle to pressure public schools to improve.

Another organization at the forefront of the choice battle has its roots in the archdiocese. Parents Advancing Values in Education, or PAVE, started out as an archdiocesan foundation in 1987 designed to sustain Catholic inner-city schools. But after four years, said Catholic layman Dan McKinley, PAVE director, “we realized we weren’t making much headway.”

The organization split from the archdiocese and shifted its focus “from schools to families in need,” becoming primarily a scholarship and advocacy group. PAVE awarded 4,371 scholarships last year to low-income families with children in private schools. In the process, PAVE has helped build an informal network of parents to advocate for tax-supported school choice.

But the single greatest source of private financial backing for choice -- its rich uncle, in a sense -- has been another Catholic layman, Michael Joyce.

It was Joyce, as president of the Milwaukee-based Harry and Lynde Bradley Foundation, who helped fund research that gave vouchers intellectual respectability, scholarships for religious schools that were excluded from the program for six years, and the legal defense that preserved the program for nonsectarian schools and later its expansion to religious ones.

Under Joyce’s direction, the Bradley Foundation has bankrolled a wide array of scholars and causes, many of them conservative. One of those backed by the foundation was Charles Murray, who argued that social welfare programs perpetuated poverty rather than abolishing it and called for their abolition in the book Losing Ground. More recently, Murray has been famous as a coauthor of The Bell Curve, which sought to demonstrate that human intelligence is largely inherited and suggested a link between intelligence and race. (Joyce has on several occasions distanced himself and the foundation from Murray’s latter conclusions.)

The foundation has poured some $14 million into school choice, most of that -- $9.5 million -- to fund scholarships through PAVE. Another $2 million has gone to finance the state’s defense of the program against two lawsuits filed by choice opponents. The remaining amount has gone to finance research and parent-networking organizations.

For Joyce, the Bradley Foundation’s support of school choice is a natural extension of the foundation’s guiding philosophical principles. It’s also the natural outgrowth of interests he brought to Milwaukee with him from the equally conservative John M. Olin Foundation, where as president he had funded research that argued for school vouchers as a means by which low-income parents dissatisfied with public education could exercise the same right to choose that middle-class and wealthy parents enjoyed when they moved to the suburbs or enrolled their children in private schools.

Joyce came to Milwaukee as the Bradley Foundation’s founding director. The foundation, with assets of more than $500 million, was created with proceeds from the sale of a privately held manufacturer of industrial controls, the Allen-Bradley Co., to Rockwell International.

At the foundation, Joyce says, “we’ve come to the view that one of the biggest challenges to the continuation of the self-governing republic is the reduction of the role of citizens that’s occurred mostly in this century.” Among those lost “citizenly virtues” is education.

“One of the most important things a citizen does as a parent is provide for the education of the children,” Joyce says. And while it’s one thing to seek help in the task from others, “what has happened over this century is a centralizing cult of expertise and rational credentialism that has pushed further to the margins the role of citizens.”

Joyce contends the public school movement that took root in the last century was in large part ruled by anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiment on the part of “well-intentioned New England Protestants” who feared waves of Catholic immigrants who taught their children in parochial schools.

And while he doesn’t oppose universal school choice that would offer relief to middle-class families who may be struggling to send their children to parochial schools, Joyce says that’s a battle for another day. “Our view was we first must deal as Christians, if for no other reason, with the preferential option for the poor,” he says.

Joyce, who keeps a portrait of Thomas More above his desk, says his own Catholicism influenced his interest in the issue as well. “I try to live a life rather like he did,” Joyce says of More. “He was a man in the world but not necessarily of the world, a man who only at the most extreme level had to choose between the life in civil society and the life in the communion of saints. Happily, in free self-governing republics like ours, we don’t have to choose that.”

But, Joyce adds, in his moral and financial support of choice, “I am not in the service of the Roman Catholic church.” Indeed, he was among the advocates of converting what had been the archdiocesan foundation to support urban Catholic schools into the parent-supporting, independent PAVE. Doubters within the church raised the fear that parents wouldn’t as a consequence choose Catholic schools, Joyce says, but to him that didn’t matter.

“They said, ‘What if parents choose evangelical schools?’ ” Joyce recalls. His response: “Good, if that’s what parents think is best for the child.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999