School Choice & Charters

Voucher Initiatives Defeated In Calif., Mich.

By Mark Walsh — November 15, 2000 7 min read
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The overwhelming defeat of private-school-voucher initiatives in California and Michigan last week shows that voters consider such proposals risky and that they would prefer to improve public schools from within the system, voucher opponents said.

“It’s time to move on,” said Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, which helped fight the two measures. “It’s time voucher proponents got that message. What people are saying is that they want a great public school in their neighborhood. Let’s get on with the business of that.”

But voucher advocates responded that the latest ballot losses are not a long-term setback for their movement. Instead, they argue, the defeats merely demonstrate that the voucher faithful should spend their energy and money lobbying state legislatures and Congress for private-school-choice programs rather than taking their case directly to voters.

“I just think the complexity of the issue makes initiatives on this almost always doomed to failure,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that supports vouchers and other forms of school choice. “It is easy for the opposition to distort these issues in the public eye.”

2-1 Ratios

In California, voters rejected by a tally of 71 percent to 29 percent a sweeping voucher measure known as Proposition 38, which would have provided families at least $4,000 per child to attend private or religious schools. Students already in private schools would be phased in to the voucher program.

The measure was organized and backed to the tune of at least $23 million by Timothy Draper, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who rebuffed suggestions to try to pass a smaller voucher program limited to low-income children or those in failing public schools.

The opposition to the measure was led by Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, and the California Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the NEA.

In Michigan, a voucher measure targeted at poor-performing school districts was defeated by a vote of 69 percent to 31 percent.

Proposal 1 would have given $3,300 vouchers to parents whose children were enrolled in school districts that graduated fewer than two-thirds of their students. State officials said seven districts currently met that definition, including the Detroit school system.

The proposal also would have allowed other districts to authorize vouchers by a vote of the local residents or school board, and it would have required the legislature to establish a teacher-testing system.

Proposal 1 was backed by the Roman Catholic Church in Michigan and largely bankrolled by Richard DeVos Jr., the president of Alticor Inc., the marketing company formerly known as Amway Corp. Mr. DeVos and his family members donated at least $4.75 million of the estimated $13 million raised in support of the initiative.

The measure led at one point in statewide surveys. But Gov. John Engler, a Republican, declined to back the measure, and teachers’ unions led a $6 million drive to defeat it.

“The other side was very well-funded, but we worked our campaign on a grassroots level,” said Laura Wotruba, a spokeswoman for All Kids First!, the coalition that opposed the voucher measure.

Despite the defeat, Mr. DeVos suggested after the Nov. 7 election that he would try to learn from the defeat and offer lessons to future voucher-initiative supporters. In California, Mr. Draper also suggested that he wouldn’t rule out future voucher initiatives, even though the state’s voters soundly rejected both Proposition 38 and a similar measure in 1993.

Voters of various states have been asked 10 times to approve either vouchers or tuition tax credits for private school tuition, and they have said no each time. The closest any of the measures came to passage was a 1972 Maryland ballot initiative for a private- school-scholarship program, which that state’s voters rejected 55 percent to 45 percent.

Most of the measures were placed on ballots since 1990, including the 1993 California voucher measure, a 1992 voucher measure and a 1998 tax- credit plan in Colorado, a 1996 voucher initiative in Washington state, and this year’s defeated measures.

Three state legislatures have enacted voucher programs since 1990: in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. The Wisconsin and Ohio programs apply only to Milwaukee and Cleveland, respectively. Florida’s program is targeted at children in poor-performing schools statewide; currently, only children from two schools in Pensacola are eligible.

“Initiatives on a voucher issue of any kind are likely to lose,” said Terry M. Moe, a political science professor at Stanford University. “The problem is inherent in initiative politics.”

Mr. Moe was the co-author of an influential 1990 book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, that helped breathe new life into the voucher movement. He advocates vouchers as a market force that will encourage public schools to improve. He did not, however, support Mr. Draper’s Proposition 38, which would have provided benefits to all families, regardless of income.

“There were plenty of voucher supporters who would have told him, if asked, not to do it this way,” Mr. Moe said. “But he didn’t ask.”

Mr. Draper failed to understand that California interest groups have lengthy experience in raising fears among the public about the ramifications of an initiative such as vouchers, Mr. Moe said.

“In an initiative campaign, if the opponents can raise doubts and uncertainties, then they win,” he said. “If you have a powerful opponent like the teachers’ union fighting it, their job is easy.”

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said Proposition 38 was hurt by its universal scope. Some voters decided it was a form of tax relief for wealthy suburbanites, he said.

“Tim Draper has done to vouchers what Hillary Clinton did to universal health care,” said Mr. Fuller, who has written against vouchers. “He has probably set the movement back by 10 years.”

Black Support?

But voucher proponents say that even past defeats of voucher initiatives did little to stunt the growth of their movement.

“It’s disappointing, but I wouldn’t read too much into these defeats,” said Nina Shokraii Rees, the senior education analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank that supports vouchers.

“A U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of vouchers would single-handedly generate much more interest in creating voucher programs in other states,” she added.

Indeed, one factor keeping states from considering vouchers is the legal cloud over whether they can be provided for children in religious schools without violating the constitutional prohibition against a government establishment of religion.

The Supreme Court declined in 1998 to review an appellate court decision that upheld the constitutionality of Wisconsin’s law, which authorizes vouchers for children in religious schools. But most legal experts expect the high court to eventually take up a voucher case from Ohio or Florida, which also include religious schools in their programs. Legal challenges to those states’ programs are working their way through the courts.

Voucher advocates point to other developments as signs that momentum is on their side. For one, some prominent liberals, such as former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, have voiced support for experimenting with vouchers for children from low-income families.

And despite conflicting evidence from public opinion surveys, voucher supporters argue that many African-Americans are eager to use vouchers to escape failing public schools.

“On the one hand, you see these defeats for ballot initiatives, but you see more and more black parents suffering” because their children are in poor schools, said Howard L. Fuller, a former superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools who is a strong advocate for school choice, including vouchers for poor children.

“Rather than be discouraged, I am more encouraged to fight for choice for poor students,” said Mr. Fuller, a professor of education at Marquette University in Milwaukee, who formed an organization called the Black Alliance for Educational Options to promote school choice among African-Americans.

Many African-Americans still oppose vouchers, however. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has actively fought them in recent years.

According to exit polling of Michigan voters conducted by The Detroit News last week, a majority of black voters cast ballots against the voucher measure in that state.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Voucher Initiatives Defeated In Calif., Mich.


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