Nov 08, 2000

The decisive defeat of school voucher schemes on the ballot in California and Michigan should deliver a death blow to the school voucher movement, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

California's Proposition 38 and Michigan's Proposal 1 failed by margins of more than 2-1. The results are the latest in a long string of defeats at the ballot box for vouchers or other plans to use public funds for private education.

"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, which opposed both measures. "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."

 The California initiative, backed by Silicon Valley multi-millionaire Tim Draper, was the more extreme of the two and would have offered vouchers worth $4,000 to every student, including those already enrolled in private schools. The plan drew support from the Religious Right, but critics said it would cost the state millions just to subsidize parents whose children already attend private schools.

Draper poured $26 million of his own money into the effort, to no avail. Prop. 38 lost 71-29 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting. The defeat marked the second time in seven years that California voters have rejected vouchers at the polls. (The first vote was in 1993, when vouchers were defeated 70 percent to 30 percent.)

The Michigan measure, while less ambitious, proved no more popular with the voters. Proposal 1, backed by Amway founder Dick DeVos with support from Religious Right groups and the state's Roman Catholic bishops, would have allocated vouchers worth $3,300 to students in school districts deemed "failing."

Michigan voucher proponents outspent foes 2-1, but the measure was easily defeated, 69 percent against to 31 percent, with 95 percent of precincts reporting. In 1970 Michigan voters handily approved a constitutional amendment barring tax aid to religious and other private schools. In 1978 an attempt to repeal the ban was defeated at the polls, with 74 percent of voters rejecting the move.

"Once again the people have spoken," said Lynn. "They want to improve public schools, not divert public funds to religious schools. Despite the deep pockets of well-heeled multi-millionaires, voters in California and Michigan saw vouchers for what they are: a constitutional threat and educational snake oil."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.