State Policy Network
Communications case study: Commonwealth Foundation helps high school student become nationally recognized school choice advocate

Successful school choice stories often fly under the radar. While the news covers the ongoing debate between school choice advocates and their adversaries, we don’t hear enough about the thousands of students whose lives were improved after they were able to attend a school that best fits their needs.

Myles Slade-Bowers is one of those students. The Commonwealth Foundation helped Myles obtain a tax credit to attend Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Without this school choice scholarship, Myles would have to attend a public school in his neighborhood that is consistently ranked among the worst 15 percent of schools in the state. Myles has an eye condition that requires frequent reading breaks, and his mom knew he needed more flexibility than what was available at his local school.

Soon after Myles started at Bishop McDevitt, Commonwealth hired Myles as an intern and sent his compelling story to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who invited Myles to a White House education summit with the president himself. Commonwealth helped Myles become a nationally recognized advocate for school choice, and in the process helped build their brand as powerful school choice advocates for struggling students and their families.

Myles Slade-Bowers at the White House
Photo credit: Commonwealth Foundation

SPN: What happened at the meeting with the president and his advisors?

Commonwealth: As President Trump and others around the table listened to Myles’ story, they were visibly moved. Myles looked the president in the eye and told him: “School choice opens up doors that would otherwise be slammed shut. As a young African American male in a low-income neighborhood, it’s more likely I would be a dropout of high school or even in prison at this very moment rather than speaking before you.” We took full advantage of this opportunity in order to illustrate the impact of school choice to decision makers at the national level who can bring these options to even more students.

SPN: How would you have defined your brand before this project? How would you describe your brand now?

Commonwealth: Helping Myles was less of a “project” and more of a natural outgrowth of the work we do every day. Our brand as school choice advocates has always been an organization that helps struggling families access the education option that meets their needs and helps them achieve educational success. We are especially successful in helping lower-income and minority families whose ZIP-code-assigned school districts often suffer poor academic and safety records.

Now that we have succeeded at helping Myles become a school choice advocate who counts among his acquaintances the Speaker of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, the US Secretary of Education, the Vice President of the United States, and the President himself, our brand as powerful advocates for these families is the same—but louder, bolder, and more effective.

SPN: How has this brand helped your organization understand itself better? How has it helped your allies and external audiences?

Commonwealth: After Myles’ meeting at the White House, President Trump used our policy research in his 2020 State of the Union address. At that moment, everyone on staff at CF began to feel confident that our work is not limited to the confines of our own state legislature. This confidence was bolstered when Betsy DeVos met with our staff to review the details of the tax-credit scholarship policies that we crafted for Pennsylvania, so that she could use them on the federal level. Thanks to our brand boost, CF became a nexus for two divergent constituencies: families who largely already supported DeVos’ education policies, and the minority and low-income families with school-age children who stand to benefit most from her policies. Organizations who work with these two groups flocked to CF’s banner as a coalition-builder: for example, KIPP Philadelphia, Independence Mission Schools, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, and many more.

SPN: Whose opinion of your brand were you trying to influence?

Commonwealth: Throughout this project we drastically boosted our brand with influential members of the Trump administration. After the meeting at the White House, Myles attended a Philadelphia event with Vice President Pence and Secretary DeVos, for whom we provided background materials, showing the strength of CF’s relationships with the executive branch. The White House now frequently reaches out to request our scholarly work, message testing, and on-the-ground connections on school choice and other issues in Pennsylvania. Just a few weeks ago, Vice President Pence shared a stage with our Western Pennsylvania Director Lenny McAllister to discuss school choice and racial equality at a Pittsburgh-area event. And we’ve offered the administration several school choice policy solutions to deal with the drastic changes to the education landscape due to the coronavirus, including emergency education scholarship accounts to help get students get back on track after school shutdowns.

SPN: How did this project increase the awareness and credibility of your brand?

Commonwealth: Because of the connections that we made in the White House, President Trump used Commonwealth Foundation’s research in one of his campaign speeches. The research showed Pennsylvania’s tax-credit scholarships programs deny 50,000 applications due to limits on funding. And in his 2020 State of the Union address, the president also used our research and highlighted a family in Philadelphia in need of a scholarship. Pennsylvania is one of the most important swing states in the country, and the eyes of the nation are focused on our policy decisions, including school choice. The Trump administration’s use of our research firmly establishes our role as national school choice champions, particularly to those who support our work.

SPN: What would you do differently if you did this project again?

Commonwealth: Myles’ success as a national school choice advocate is proof of a powerful strategy of engaging students who have been helped by school choice. Not only do these students make excellent champions of school choice, they are also eager to give back on behalf of a policy that has helped them so much. In the future, we will be on the lookout for many more potential advocates like Myles who can show the nation that school choice is good for everyone!

For their work building their brand as a leading school choice advocate, Commonwealth is a 2020 SPN Communications Excellence Awards Finalist for the Bold Brand Boost Award.

Categories: State News
Organization: State Policy Network