School Choice & Charters

Politics

By Bess Keller — May 10, 2000 7 min read
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This is the first of what will be a regular page exploring the intersection of education policy and politics.

Voucher Plan Tears Apart Michigan GOP

A campaign to put school vouchers on the ballot in Michigan has opened a wide rift in the state’s Republican Party, pitting Gov. John Engler against two millionaire activists who had been among his strongest backers.

The breach all but guarantees that if the voucher issue makes it to the polls next November, as now seems likely, it will be fought as much on grounds of passion and politics as on principle.

“It’s a very hot issue, and it’s ideologically polarized,” said David N. Plank, the director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University in Lansing. GOP “disarray” further complicates the picture, the education professor added.

Seasoned observers have been taken aback by the sharp split between Mr. Engler and Dick and Betsy DeVos. Mr. DeVos is the president of Amway Corp., the direct-sales giant based in Ada, Mich., and his wife was the chairwoman of the state Republican Party until she resigned over differences with the governor in February. Mr. DeVos is a co-chairman of the Kids First! Yes! campaign to remove a ban on school vouchers from the state’s constitution.

Mr. Engler initially said he was lukewarm about the idea when the voucher drive began last summer, but he has gone on the attack since then. The campaign has collected some 50 percent more signatures than the 300,000 required, making the petition likely to pass the verification process.

The governor questions both the scope and the timing of the ballot question. It would require the state to provide tuition vouchers to students in districts where fewer than two-thirds of the students graduated from high school—about 40 of Michigan’s 560 districts—or where local voters approved the idea. The vouchers would give parents half the state’s spending per pupil, or about $3,100, for use at private schools, including those with a religious affiliation.

“The proposal doesn’t encompass enough of the school districts,” said Susan Shafer, a spokeswoman for the governor. “And we’ve got the charter school movement moving ahead very quickly. [Mr. Engler] wants to see how that’s going to play out before throwing vouchers into the mix as well.”

Last November, Mr. Engler asked Ms. DeVos to set aside a scheduled Republican State Committee endorsement of the constitutional change while a commission studied it, a move the chairwoman took with reluctance.

Defection From the Ranks

At the time, a columnist for the Detroit News called the exchange a “dust-up,” but predicted that the two “will be otherwise allied in 2000.”

Instead, two months ago, Ms. DeVos said she had had enough of being Mr. Engler’s “follower,” and surprised most party leaders by resigning. Soon after, nine state GOP staff members defected to Kids First! Yes!, including the executive director, the finance director, and the political director, to take parallel positions at the campaign.

Ms. DeVos, a major Republican donor, has gone on to become the finance chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign.

She and her husband have long been committed to the private school option for poor children. The couple heads a charity scholarship program that last year paid partial tuitions for 4,000 Michigan children and drew applications from many thousands more.

No one doubts Ms. DeVos’ devotion to the voucher cause, and most Republicans—including Gov. Engler—praise her handling of the state GOP.

After she took over the party in 1996, she put together the money and organization that secured the Michigan House of Representatives for the Republicans in 1998, giving the GOP its tightest control of the state government in years. Republicans now make up the majority in both legislative chambers and the state supreme court, while holding three of the four top executive jobs.

But Mr. Engler, who is in his third term and will leave office in 2003, has worried aloud that the party’s hold could be jeopardized by a divisive voucher campaign that in November could undo the 58-52 majority in the House and hurt the chances of other GOP candidates as well.

The fear is not just that the dispute will distract and demoralize the party, some GOP strategists say, but also that it will bring African-American and Roman Catholic voters to the polls in greater numbers than usual, where they will tip the scale toward Democrats.

“We’re in a battle royal for the House majority,” said Speaker of the House Charles R. Perricone, adding that he expects “an ugly campaign.”

But voucher advocates say it will be the presidential election that determines turnout in November, and that Republicans should not miss the opportunity of attracting new voters by becoming the party identified with school choice.

In recent weeks, meanwhile, the dispute between Gov. Engler and the Kids First! Yes! campaign has taken a new and even odder twist in the state’s heated budget negotiations, which then spilled over, strangely enough, into a campaign for county drain commissioner.

Budget Carries Warning

The controversy started when the governor included a line in his recommended education budget for the coming year warning school districts that their state allocations might be reduced by $100 per student if the voucher proposal passed. The state Senate first removed and then reinstated the warning, deleting the specific dollar amount.

Voucher proponents cried foul anyway, arguing that even if such contingency statements were not so unusual, this one was unnecessary. Even under a “worst case” fiscal scenario, the voucher forces say, the initial cost of the program would be $80 million, an amount they say could be easily handled by surplus funds.

The governor countered that the surplus was committed elsewhere, and that fiscal prudence called for a reserve fund, should the proposal pass.

Among the senators voting for the warning amendment was lame-duck Bill Bullard, who then became the target of 2,000 fliers produced by Kids First! Yes! attacking his stand. The fliers were aimed at Sen. Bullard’s campaign for drain commissioner in Oakland County outside Detroit. Voucher-campaign officials said they wanted to send a message to the 110-member House, where the budget is now being deliberated.

But Speaker Perricone, a strong voucher supporter, issued a warning of his own, saying further such attacks on legislators would send him “crisscrossing the state in opposition to the entire [Kids First! Yes!] organization.”

He said he favored letting the Senate language stand in the House budget bill. “I don’t necessarily think it should be there either,” he said. “But in the real world, everything revolves around 56 votes.”


Party Lines

As a simple matter of fairness, Fort Worth Superintendent Thomas S. Tocco wants people to know that Gov. George W. Bush has been good for education in the Lone Star State. That’s one message he took with him on a recent trip to Washington, where he was helping Fort Worth boosters shine a spotlight on the city. “From this time forward, just about everything you hear is going to be politically tinged” because of Mr. Bush’s race for the White House, he said from his office back home in Texas after his visit. “But I think people need to know that independent of what else they think of Mr. Bush, his agenda has been very useful to reform-minded superintendents.”

Mr. Tocco prefaced his Washington remarks by saying he had spent most of his life as a Democrat and is now an independent. “I’m certainly not a card-carrying Republican,’' he added.

Other Texas schools chiefs agree that the presumptive GOP presidential nominee has advanced education in their state.

Rod Paige

Rod Paige, the superintendent of the 208,000-student Houston district and the chairman of the Texas School Alliance, which represents the 25 largest school systems in the state, said that a succession of state leaders share credit for improving Texas schools, going back to businessman Ross Perot in the early 1980s.

Nonetheless, Mr. Paige argued, “improvement under Bush has been spectacular because it has been the centerpiece of his administration. The governor has been a passionate supporter of the accountability system and has added leadership and resources to that, and we are very appreciative.”

But neither Mr. Tocco nor Mr. Paige plans any formal testimonials for the candidate. “We operate in a political environment all the time,” Mr. Paige said. “We know how to focus on education.”

—Bess Keller

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A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2000 edition of Education Week as Politics

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