Voucher’s Money Man

Without the millions of dollars guided into the voucher movement by conservative ideologue Michael Joyce, vouchers most likely would never have passed the Wisconsin legislature.

By Barbara Miner

The money man behind Wisconsin’s voucher program has left the state to take his right-wing agenda to an even broader national audience.
Michael Joyce is not a household name. But as head of the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Joyce wielded pivotal power in the service of a highly conservative agenda of vouchers, deregulation, privatization, lower taxes, reduced social services, and attacks on progressive initiatives such as affirmative action.

During his 15-year tenure, Joyce built Bradley into the most powerful conservative foundation in the country. Perhaps more than any other person, he was responsible for the voucher legislation under which Wisconsin became the first state providing public dollars for private schools.

A staunch ideological conservative who likens public schools to “socialism,” Joyce is a prime example of the conservative orientation — and money — that lies at the heart of the voucher movement. A shrewd tactician, Joyce made sure that vouchers did not appear to be a white, conservative initiative.

Joyce himself rarely entered the public debate, preferring to work behind the scenes. “You never had to see Michael Joyce arguing for choice,” notes Walter Farrell, formerly of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and currently a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “You saw [State Rep.] Polly [Williams]. And when Polly was no longer useful she was pushed aside and you saw Mikel Holt [of the Black newspaper The Community Journal]. And then you saw [former Milwaukee superintendent] Howard Fuller — who of the three was the most articulate, best educated and most charismatic — arguing the agenda. But the agenda had been set somewhere else.”

According to the watchdog group Media Transparency, Joyce oversaw approximately $359 million in grants from 1985 to 1999. Equally important, Joyce forged a working alliance among conservative foundations that tied grant-giving to an ideologically disciplined conservative strategy.

Joyce, 59, formally retired from the Bradley Foundation on July 5. He left Milwaukee earlier in the spring to promote President George W. Bush’s controversial faith-based initiative.

As head of the Bradley Foundation, Joyce turned Wisconsin into a showcase for right-wing reforms such as the elimination of the welfare safety net and the use of public tax dollars to pay for private schooling. Friends and foes alike acknowledge Joyce’s lasting legacy.

“Over the period of his Bradley service, it’s difficult to recall a single, serious thrust against incumbent liberalism that did not begin or end with Mike Joyce,” wrote Neal Freeman in a tribute in National Review Online.

Joyce, meanwhile, was well paid for his efforts. According to tax records filed by the Bradley Foundation, Joyce received $610,085 in compensation from Bradley in 1999: $424,000 in salary, $26,630 in “other allowances,” and $157,455 in retirement and pension benefits.

Bradley Board members also receive impressive pay. Board Chair I. Andrew “Tiny” Rader received $133,500 in 1999; board members Brother Bob Smith of Messmer High School received $31,500 and Milwaukee attorney Michael Grebe received $37,250.


In Wisconsin, Joyce is identified with two main causes: welfare and school vouchers. In both, he skillfully portrayed himself as a compassionate reformer battling an entrenched government bureaucracy. In both, he advocated policies noteworthy for their lack of public accountability. In both, he always made sure that the movement had the appearance of a grassroots, multiracial campaign.

Nationally, Joyce was far more likely to take the gloves off and fund projects with openly racist or sexist overtones. Take, as an example, two events recently in the news.

The first involves journalist David Brock’s admission this summer that he consciously led a right-wing smear campaign against Anita Hill after she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Brock’s campaign against Hill helped rationalize Thomas’ confirmation to the Court, which in turn lent legitimacy to the Court’s rightward lurch.

In his attack on Hill, Brock wrote among other things that Hill was “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” It was a slander that stuck.

In the recent issue of Talk magazine, however, Brock now says he lied about Hill, calling himself part of a “highly profitable right-wing Big Lie Machine.”
Guess who was a Big-Time Funder of that Big Lie Machine: Michael Joyce.

Brock first wrote about Hill in The American Spectator magazine in 1992; under Joyce’s tutelage, from 1986 to 1999, Bradley granted The American Spectator $1.4 million.

Bradley also gave Brock $11,850 to turn his magazine article into a book. In an article at the time in Milwaukee Magazine, Joyce defended the grant, calling Brock’s book “a very thorough and meticulous piece of research.”

Joyce is also closely tied to David Horowitz, a former left-wing radical turned right-wing pit bull. This spring, Horowitz led a racially explosive campaign to place ads in college newspapers titled, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea — and Racist Too.” The inflammatory approach of Reason Number Nine is typical: “What About the Debt Blacks Owe to America?”

Horowitz, author of books such Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes, heads the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which routinely rails against the sins of feminism, multiculturalism, identity politics and other cultural movements questioning the status quo.

From 1989 to 1999, Horowitz’s Center was granted $3.79 million from the Bradley Foundation, including $475,000 in both 1998 and 1999. The grants made the center number 24 on Bradley’s all-time list of grantees.

(The American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, the most influential of the right-wing think tanks in Washington, D.C., are number one and number two on the Bradley dole, receiving more than $12 million and $11 million, respectively. Extensive information on Bradley grantees is available through www.mediatransparency.org. The most recent Bradley reports are available through the foundation at www.bradleyfdn.org.)


No accounting of Joyce’s national role or ideological orientation would be complete without noting the Bradley Foundation’s nearly $1 million funding of Charles Murray while he co-authored The Bell Curve, the 1994 book that posits the intellectual inferiority of African Americans.

When word got out that Murray was a Bradley Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and that Bradley bankrolled The Bell Curve, Joyce tried to distance himself from the controversy. But Joyce is explicitly mentioned in the book’s acknowledgments as one of those “who have read chapters or listened to us try to explain what we’re up to and have offered advice, or at least raised their eyebrows usefully.”

Further, The Bell Curve and Joyce share a broader ideological perspective. Both argue that this country’s social problems are not related to structural issues of poverty, unemployment, declining wages, racism, and discrimination, but rest in the behavior and abilities of individuals.

In a farewell opinion piece in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel June 16, Joyce typically referred to the “social-pathology-riddled inner city.”

In an interview with Rethinking Schools a few months before The Bell Curve was published, Joyce argued that “the unwillingness to recognize different levels of cognitive ability could explain some of the social pathologies that we have.” He said that growing school dropout rates, for example, might be the result of the frustration when those young people with “somewhat limited intellectual ability” are expected “to manage a rigorous curriculum.”

Murray, in an interview in The National Review in 1997, called The Bell Curve “the stealth public-policy book of the 1990s. It created a subtext on a range of issues. Everybody knows what the subtext is. Nobody says it out loud.” As an example, he cited the dismantling of affirmative action, which he argued was a flawed policy because “most people are not smart enough to profit from an authentic college education.”

Joyce, meanwhile, has played a key role in the attacks on affirmative action. Bradley, for example, is a top funder of the American Civil Rights Institute started by Ward Connerly, who led the campaign to overthrow affirmative action in California. From its founding in 1997 to 1999, Connerly’s Institute received $750,000 from Bradley. Bradley also funds the Center for Individual Rights, which argued a landmark case successfully challenging affirmative action policies at the University of Texas Law School. Since its founding in 1989, the Center has received $970,000 in Bradley grants.


Without a doubt, school vouchers and welfare reform are issues far bigger than any one individual. But both, particularly vouchers, clearly bear Joyce’s imprint.

Former Wisconsin School Superintendent John Benson calls Joyce “the firepower behind the voucher initiative.”

“He’s the one who fired up and then convinced then-Gov. Thompson,” Benson said. “And he did that with the power and finances of the Bradley Foundation. Without them, we wouldn’t have school vouchers.”

Milwaukee was the first city to provide publicly funded vouchers for children to attend private schools; about 70% of voucher students attend religious schools. To date, only Cleveland and Florida have similar programs, both begun after Milwaukee’s experiment.

Joyce has likened public education to socialism and does not believe vouchers should be limited to low-income students. Nationally, Bradley has poured tens of millions of dollars into vouchers through its funding of pro-voucher publications, research papers, think tanks, legal advocacy groups, and pro-voucher organizations.

Within Wisconsin, it’s difficult to find a nonprofit voucher group that hasn’t received significant Bradley money.

For example, The Institute for the Transformation of Learning, led by Howard Fuller, has been granted more than $1 million by Bradley since 1995. The Black Research Organization, started by Mikel Holt of the pro-voucher Community Journal, received a total of $319,000 in 1995 and 1996. Partners Advancing Values in Education, a pro-voucher scholarship group based in Milwaukee, has received roughly $10 million from Bradley over the years.
Joyce also played a strategic role in the W-2 (Wisconsin Works) reform in Wisconsin. W-2 was hailed at the time as the most radical welfare reform program in the country and became a prototype for other states and federal programs.

Through his national funding, Joyce supported think tanks and researchers that shared his view that poverty is based more in the irresponsibility of the individual than in structures of unemployment, low wages, and inadequate health care, and that government welfare programs unwittingly support this irresponsibility.

One such national think tank, the Hudson Institute based in Indianapolis, went on to become directly involved in W-2. (Under Joyce, the Hudson Institute received $4.16 million in Bradley grants, according to Media Transparency.)

In 1994, Hudson was granted $175,000 by Bradley “to support a project on welfare reform in Wisconsin.” The next year, it was granted an additional $175,000 to study Wisconsin welfare reform. In 1997, when W-2 began to be implemented, the Hudson Institute set up a Welfare Policy Center in Madison — again with Bradley money. The Hudson Institute described the center as “an outgrowth of Hudson’s unique participation in helping the state of Wisconsin design and implement Wisconsin Works.”


Some argue that Joyce got out of town just in time, as both welfare reform and vouchers come under increasing criticism.

W-2 has done little to end poverty and promote self-sufficiency, as was originally hoped. A state Legislative Audit Committee report this April found that while welfare rolls have dropped dramatically, there is little information about what has happened to former welfare recipients.

What is known is not heartening.

Of those dropped in the first three months of 1998, only 30% were known to be above the federal poverty level, even if the earned income tax credit was included. Of those former welfare recipients who filed state income tax returns (no one really knows what happened to those who didn’t), the average income was $11,988, according to the Legislative Audit Committee report.

But that doesn’t mean some people aren’t making big bucks off W-2. In Milwaukee County, the five private agencies running W-2 made $26 million in profits from W-2 from September 1997 through December 1999, according to the Legislative Audit Committee report. Some $12 million was supposed to be reinvested into the community, but only $2.4 million of the reinvestment funds had been spent by the time of the audit.

Two of the private agencies in Milwaukee, Maximus, Inc. and Employment Solutions, Inc., have come under particular criticism for misuse of funds and extravagant employee bonuses totaling almost $2 million.

The voucher program has also come under increased criticism, in particular for its lack of accountability and its failure to deliver on its original promises. Critics of Joyce believe the similarities in the welfare and voucher initiatives are not coincidental, but flow from a conservative approach that in general disdains accountability for private institutions and which assumes private is always superior to public.

Although vouchers were premised on the ability of private schools to improve the academic achievement of low-income students, particularly African Americans, it is impossible to know if that is happening. Because voucher schools are considered private, even though they receive public dollars, they do not have to release any information on student achievement or test scores.

“Every day I’m pleading to choice supporters to provide some real evidence” of academic achievement, notes Eric Von, host of “Morning Magazine” on WMCS, AM 1290. “You don’t see that yet so it’s hard to determine if good things are really happening.”

Questions have also been raised about the exact circumstances under which Joyce left the Bradley Foundation.

While Joyce was a staunch advocate of “personal responsibility,” some doubt whether he held himself to the same high standards he expected of others. According to a report this August by Milwaukee journalist Bruce Murphy in his web sitewww.milwaukeeworld.com:

“A source says Michael Joyce was asked to leave his job as president of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. ‘The board thought Joyce had a drinking problem. They brought it to his attention and suggested he should get some help. Joyce denied he had a problem.’ The situation came to a head at the inauguration of George W. Bush, which some board members and Joyce attended. ‘Joyce had too much to drink,’ the source says, and embarrassed board members. …”

Joyce is currently President and CEO of two new organizations promoting Bush’s faith-based initiative: the Americans for Community and Faith-Centered Enterprise, a lobbying group based in Washington; and the Foundation for Community and Faith-Centered Enterprise, a foundation based in Phoenix. His second wife, Mary Jo Joyce, is executive director of the lobbying group. Mary JO relayed by fax this June that Michael Joyce would return a call for comment on his departure “when his schedule permits.”


So what is Michael Joyce’s legacy?

Nationally, the answer depends on whether one believes that ending welfare is the solution to poverty; whether providing tax dollars to private schools is the way to improve public education; whether building more prisons will solve problems of crime; whether Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are steering the U.S. Supreme Court in a positive direction, and whether feminism, affirmative action, and multiculturalism are symptoms of cultural decay.

In Milwaukee, one must answer this key question: Is Milwaukee better off, or worse, than when Joyce came to town?

“Milwaukee will be operating under Michael Joyce’s vision for some time to come,” notes Farrell. “And that, in itself, is a testament to his success and tactical brilliance.”

“That’s Joyce’s legacy,” Farrell continued. “He changed the way education policy is operating in Wisconsin, and he had a big hand in changing welfare policy. Those will be in place long after he’s gone, for good or ill.”

Barbara Miner is managing editor of Rethinking Schools. A version of this article appeared this July in The Shepherd Express in Milwaukee, WI.