Friday, December 7, 2007

Put your money where your agenda is

Among Milwaukee's claims to fame is our status as "ground zero" for the school choice movement. No other city has as large or as long-standing a school choice program as Milwaukee's, which enables over 20,000 low-income students to attend private school using taxpayer-funded vouchers.

The Forum has had much to say over the years with regards to the intent, design, and function of the voucher program, but we have not weighed in as either pro- or anti-school choice. (Our survey work has shown that it is generally supported by a majority of the public and that parents are satisfied with the program.)

We are just about the only policy organization in our state that can say we have not taken a position on this issue.

A new study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy reveals why the Forum is unique in this respect...advocacy on behalf of school choice is big business. In one year (2005), over $65.5 million in grants to pro-choice groups were made.

While those of us paying attention to education reform have known for a long time that certain foundations are playing an extremely important role in policymaking, this report is the first to delineate and enumerate the power of the foundations and the advocacy groups they support. You shouldn't be surprised to learn Milwaukee's own Bradley Foundation is the second-most generous supporter of pro-choice advocates and researchers, giving 37 grants totaling over $6.3 million in 2005 alone.

The unique coordination and collaboration among the various foundations and the groups they support is the focus of the study. As the author states,

"This report shows how philanthropic capital from small and large foundations
has helped build political support for the school privatization agenda. It can
serve as a case study for other foundation and nonprofit leaders who are
interested in effective, strategic movementbuilding grantmaking."
The children receiving vouchers in Milwaukee do so because a school choice movement was built and strengthened in a strategic and systematic way, with supporters putting their money behind their ideas and ideology. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy considers this history a blueprint for future social movements. I expect this model will be tried, with varying degrees of success, across many policy issues. Where does this trend leave an independent, non-advocacy research organization like the Forum? I guess we'll be the ones, ten years down the road, telling those foundations whether they've spent their money wisely.

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