December 2000 Church & State | Featured

Voucher proponents in Michigan were sure they had a winner in Proposal 1. The plan called for phasing vouchers in slowly, beginning with seven urban school districts deemed "failing" because of below-standard graduation rates.

Groups backing the ballot measure pulled out all the stops to secure victory. Dick DeVos, president of the Amway Corporation, poured millions into the effort. Religious Right groups and their allies endorsed the plan and blanketed the state with mailings. Leaders with the Roman Catholic Church urged their members to support it and donated $1 million to the campaign.

Initiative enthusiasts even arranged for U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to tape two television commercials. In the ads McCain, who was a popular figure in the state during the Republican primaries, said, "Michigan knows me as a straight talker and a fighter for common-sense reform.... Proposal 1 is vital reform for our most vital resources our kids."

But Michigan voters were not swayed by big money, glitzy television commercials or appeals by out-of-state celebrities. On Nov. 7, they crushed Proposal 1, turning it down by a more than 2-1 margin 69 percent against to 31 percent for. The lop-sided tally came despite the fact that DeVos and his fellow voucher boosters spent twice as much on their campaign as opponents $12 million to $6 million.

The Michigan showdown was one of two voucher referenda on the ballot last month. California also faced a vote, and the results there were about the same. Golden State voters rejected vouchers, 71 percent against to 29 percent for.

Of the two proposals, California's plan, drafted and promoted by Silicon Valley multi-millionaire Tim Draper, was the more far-reaching. Draper would have essentially privatized education in California. Under his scheme, every child in the state including those already enrolled in private schools would have been eligible for a $4,000 voucher for tuition at any public, private or religious school.

Californians sensed early on how radical the measure was. Throughout the year it trailed persistently in the polls, despite Draper's use of $26 million from his personal fortune on the drive. In desperation, he even stooped to offering people opportunities to win vacations, computers and other prizes if they would agree to line up new supporters through his website. The money and incentives were for naught, however, and the proposal remained mired at below 30 percent weeks before Election Day.

Proposition 38 drew support from a few Religious Right outfits such as the California Christian Coalition and the James Dobson-allied Capitol Resource Institute, but many influential groups saw little to be gained by going all out for Draper's quixotic crusade. (The Catholic hierarchy withheld its endorsement.) Instead, voucher boosters pinned their hopes on Michigan's more modest proposal but lost badly there as well.

Jeanne Allen, president of the pro-voucher Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C., told the Detroit News in October that the Michigan plan is "much better written, much more focused and reflects the current drive for reform more than does the plan in California."

The "current drive" Allen was referring to is voucher proponents' ongoing effort to convince inner-city minorities that vouchers are their only hope for educating their children. Right-wing legislative proposals in several states have reflected this trend, aiming their largess at urban public schools deemed "failing."

Voucher proponents cite some polls showing strong support for vouchers among African-Americans and other racial minorities. Critics have long charged, however, that these polls are unreliable because the questions are worded in ways that favors vouchers. The vote in Michigan provides evidence that voucher critics have been right all along. In Wayne County, which includes Detroit and its large African-American and Hispanic population, voters rejected Proposal 1 by a slightly higher margin than the rest of the state 72 percent against to 28 percent for. This result occurred even though the measure would have made residents of Detroit and six other school districts immediately eligible for vouchers worth $3,300.           

Voucher supporters in Michigan tried various schemes to persuade voters to back the plan. For example, they added two other features to Proposal 1 that they thought would be politically popular a program of mandatory testing for teachers and a guarantee that public schools would never get less money then the per-pupil funding for the 2000-01 school year.

Television ads produced by "Kids First! Yes!," the pro-voucher coalition, played up the teacher testing portion of the initiative, mentioning vouchers only once. But the anti-voucher coalition, called "ALL Kids First," countered that Michigan already has testing for teachers hired since 1992 as well as a funding guarantee for public schools.

In the end, the pro-voucher group's ruse did not work. Michigan voters regarded Proposal 1 as a threat to public education. Exit polls indicated that state residents were worried that the proposal would drain money away from public schools and drag down their quality.

"What's going to happen if they siphon off funds to Catholic and religious schools?" asked voter Margaret James in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. "We'll end up footing the bill when the public schools don't have enough money."

The voucher defeats in California and Michigan are the latest in a string of unsuccessful ballot referenda. Since 1967, "education choice" advocates have tried repeatedly to enact schemes that divert public funds into the coffers of private schools. All have failed, usually by big margins.

Both Michigan and California have had bouts with this issue before. In 1970, Michigan voters amended the state constitution to ban tax aid to parochial schools by a margin of 57-43 percent. Eight years later, an attempt to remove that language failed decisively, 74 percent against to 26 percent for.

In 1982, Californians rejected a ballot proposal to use tax funds to provide textbooks for private schools, 61 percent to 39 percent. In 1993, voters there trounced a voucher referendum, 70 percent to 30 percent.

Church-state separationists applauded the recent defeats in Michigan and California but know the battle isn't over. The day after voters turned down his proposal in Michigan, DeVos told reporters he would be back. "We aren't going to rest, and we aren't going away," he vowed. "For those who thought this would be one time and they would be done with us, I have some very bad news."

Out in the West, Draper was similarly defiant. "We got one-third of the voters," he told The Washington Times. "Next time we'll get another third."

Other voucher boosters struggled to put a positive spin on the twin defeats. "This is a position that is gaining in popularity, although obviously there are many hurdles to overcome before it becomes a widely popular response," said Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

The Center for Education Reform issued a statement blaming the defeat on "the difficulties faced by reformers when challenging the status quo with its years of entrenchment and well-organized ground troops."

But voucher opponents put forward a simpler explanation: Most Americans support public school excellence and reject vouchers. Exit polling conducted by The Wash­ington Post this year backs that up. Asked if they preferred fixing troubled public schools or vouchers, 78 percent of voters nationally said they would rather focus on fixing the schools. Only 16 percent backed vouchers as the preferred alternative.

A separate poll conducted for Phi Delta Kappa earlier this year found respondents rejecting a key principle of the voucher boosters: that competition among public and private schools will improve education. Only 19 percent said they thought "free choice for parents among a number of private, church-related schools and public schools" will improve public education.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State worked in both California and Michigan to educate voters about the threat vouchers pose to religious liberty and public schools. Educational materials prepared by Americans United went out to thousands of AU members, and the group worked closely with anti-voucher coalitions in both states.

"American voters have repeatedly rejected schemes to divert tax dollars from the public school system to religious schools," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "School vouchers seem to have more lives than a movie vampire. But surely these decisive votes in California and Michigan will drive a stake through the voucher movement's heart."