Training the next generation of leaders and engaging citizens to fight for freedom

Stephen M. Barney, Sr., often talks about the important distinction between wisdom and knowledge. Wisdom, of course, adds to a collection of facts and information the ability to discern truth and judge between good and evil, empowering individuals to live well. Wisdom is gained through experience, primarily, as well as training in virtue and character.

Barney is a wise man with a lifetime of experiences that guide his priorities and philanthropy today. His career in finance certainly gave him a particular worldview. But, he wasn’t just a desk-bound number cruncher. He was a marketing entrepreneur. He joined the 20th Century Mutual Fund Family (now The American Century Funds) in 1980. They had been in business 20 years and were managing $40 million in assets. In 1997, the company was managing $100 billion in assets and negotiated a sale of a large minority share of the company to J.P. Morgan.

A natural storyteller, Barney usually talks about helping people:

“Our mutual funds had a no-minimum policy. This meant that someone could start with $100 and pay us just one percent per year—a sure money loser for us. Everybody thought we were nuts, but over time we helped people become better investors, and we both grew together. Educating kindergartners and first graders is kind of the same idea. One day they will graduate from college and run the country.”

Upon his retirement in 1998, Barney and his wife Lynne founded the Barney Family Foundation to support their most valued causes. Primary among those was educating kids. They started by supporting schools and other educational opportunities in their hometown of Chicago. When Ted Forstmann and John Walton launched the Children’s Scholarship Fund, Barney made a major gift to support kids in Chicago, noting publicly how the government school monopoly was failing children in the system.

The more he analyzed the challenges with American education, the more he came back to the same few things: access to quality education was a fundamental building block of a free society and imparting wisdom to the next generation was of utmost importance. In his mind, traditional schools were failing at this goal and imperiling freedom and opportunity for future generations.

And yet, he saw models that were working. At Hillsdale College in Michigan, where Barney now serves as a trustee, he saw kids being educated the right way—with both knowledge and wisdom, and the virtues and character so important to success.

Not only was Hillsdale educating college students, it had developed a model classical school for elementary school students on its central Michigan campus that was wildly successful. Barney struck out on a mission: to replicate the Hillsdale model in communities across the country. In fact, his ambitious goal was to create 50 charter schools using the Hillsdale model by 2022, and he was willing to put up the seed funding to get it started.

“I’ll never forget the time I was visiting the Hillsdale campus, and someone suggested that I visit The Academy, a K–12 school started in 1990 for the children of those who worked for the college or lived nearby. Here were all these kids and their parents singing “God Bless America,” and pledging allegiance to the flag, hugging their teachers, and wanting school to start. Of course, I got all misty-eyed and went looking for Hillsdale President Larry Arnn. He is probably the wisest man I know and surely one of the most capable educators on the planet. Within
a few weeks, we were on a mission.”

The Barney Charter School Initiative was born. To date, the Initiative has launched 16 schools across the country with a total enrollment of about 8,000 students and another 6,000 to 8,000 on waiting lists. These schools “train the minds and improve the hearts of young people through a rigorous, classical education in the liberal arts and sciences, with instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue,” according to their stated goals.

Barney understands quality education is just one critical part of advancing a free society. Public policy must also be shaped and citizens engaged to fight for freedom and opportunity. So, along with his work in education reform, Barney has invested significantly in think tanks and free-market advocacy organizations.

Over the years, he’s grown frustrated with Washington, DC, and he believes the principles of federalism are central to the American experiment. That’s why he’s also partnered with State Policy Network and some network affiliates: he sees tangible progress and significant wins that advance freedom and opportunity.

Steve Barney understands well that only a generation of wise, knowledgeable people of strong and virtuous character will be able to lead and advance our free republic, and he aims to make sure that the next generation is prepared to take up that challenge.

The Barney Charter Initiative is looking for partners. If you’re interested in partnering with Hillsdale College to explore a no-tuition charter school in your community, email

Daniel Erspamer is the Chief Executive Officer for the Pelican Institute for Public Policy.