School Choice & Charters

Vouchers Facing Two Major Tests

By Jessica L. Sandham — September 27, 2000 7 min read

Call it a tale of two initiatives.

Campaigns for and against ballot measures that would create state voucher programs in California and Michigan are airing television ads, phoning potential voters, and conducting fund-raisers. But while some polls suggest that advocates of Michigan’s voucher plan are hanging on to a slim lead over their opposition, California’s voucher proponents appear to be losing support— and are adopting unusual strategies in an effort to gain momentum.

The backers of California’s Proposition 38, which ultimately would provide vouchers worth at least $4,000 to any parent who sends his or her child to a private school, recently started offering prizes—including a Hawaiian vacation, $2,000 shopping sprees at Macy’s, and free computers—to people who refer the greatest number of new supporters to the campaign. The campaign’s Web site also features a sweepstakes drawing for free computers.

Michigan, meanwhile, would initially offer vouchers only to students in failing school districts—an approach some analysts say may be more appealing to voters and could fare better at the polls.

But pass or fail, both citizen initiatives represent a make-or-break moment nationally for the movement to provide publicly financed vouchers that pay for private school tuition, many observers say. Voters in both states will decide the outcome of the measures on Nov. 7.

Campaign Tactics Criticized

The unusual tactics of the California pro-voucher camp have succeeded in attracting attention—not all of it favorable.

Although the campaign is not breaking any state or federal laws that prohibit gifts or money in exchange for votes, “it’s coming awfully close,” said Shad Balch, a spokesman for California Secretary of State Bill Jones.

But a spokesman for the Proposition 38 campaign, which is being spearheaded by Timothy C. Draper, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist, said the prizes represent a combined effort to reward hard-working volunteers and draw more people to the campaign’s World Wide Web site.

“This is coming from someone who knows what works in business,” spokesman Christopher J. Bertelli said of Mr. Draper.

A poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California, an independent think tank, found that 53 percent of California voters were opposed to Proposition 38, and 37 percent favored it, with 10 percent remaining undecided. The poll surveyed 1,651 registered voters and has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

A poll conducted by the same organization in August found a statistical dead heat—with 45 percent favoring the measure, 44 percent against it, and 11 percent undecided.

“Clearly, they don’t have enough people who support the measure, and they are trying to buy support,” said Jon Lenzner, a spokesman for the No On Prop 38 campaign, which is supported by a coalition that includes the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, and other education and business groups.

A prominent group composed of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University, known as Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, released a report last week arguing that Proposition 38 would be more beneficial to affluent families whose children already attend private school than to those with low incomes.

The report said that there was little room in the state’s existing private schools to accommodate new voucher recipients, and argued that research on current voucher programs suggests that better-educated parents are more likely to pursue new schooling options for their children.

The pro-voucher campaign maintains that a sweeping, statewide voucher program would create sufficient demand from parents to spur churches and secular organizations to open new schools. The California Catholic Conference has not taken a formal position on the measure, though voucher advocates point to local support from other religious groups.

Under the proposal, both religious and secular private schools could participate in the program.

Michigan Impact Debated

In Michigan, a poll released last week by The Detroit Free Press found that 42 percent of state voters surveyed supported Proposition 1, a measure that would offer vouchers of about $3,300 to parents of students in districts that failed to graduate at least two- thirds of their high school students within four years. Thirty-one percent of respondents were opposed to the measure, while a sizable 27 percent were undecided.

The survey of 600 likely voters has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

According to figures released by the Michigan education department this month, only seven school districts in the state, including Detroit, reported graduation rates for the 1998-99 school year that were low enough for students to qualify for vouchers under the ballot proposal. Proponents of Proposition 1 had previously reported that students in some 30 districts throughout the state would qualify.

Still, some observers say that having a narrower impact could work in favor of the Michigan measure, which would allow the vouchers to be used at religious or secular private schools.

“There is no question that the narrower approach has a broader electoral impact,” said Clint Bolick, the vice president of the Institute for Justice, a pro-voucher legal organization based in Washington. “People are wary of what they perceive to be radical change, but they will take bold steps to solve glaring problems.”

But opponents of Proposition 1 in Michigan argue that the measure would affect districts apart from those that failed to meet the graduation standard. In addition to offering vouchers to students in those districts, the measure would give school boards and voters throughout the state the opportunity to approve similar voucher programs for their districts.

“My prediction is, if it passes, there could easily be vouchers in every district in the state within just a couple of years,” said Georgene Campbell, the chairwoman of the All Kids First! anti-voucher campaign, which is supported by a coalition of education, civil rights, and child-advocacy groups.

The Michigan proposition, promoted by a group called Kids First! Yes!, also includes language guaranteeing that total state and local funding for schools would not drop below the $6,643 average per-pupil funding that schools received for the 2000-01 school year. In addition, the measure would require that all teachers be tested on a “regular” basis for competence in the primary subject areas they teach. Under current state practice, teachers are tested only at the beginning of their careers, before they receive certification.

While the Michigan measure would make the proposed voucher program part of the state constitution, the California initiative would simply authorize its program under state law.

National Implications

Nationally, people following the school choice movement agree that much is riding on the outcome of the two voucher proposals. Similar measures were on the ballots in Michigan in 1978, Oregon in 1990, Colorado in 1992, and California in 1993, and all were voted down by ratios of at least 2-to-1.

All of the country’s current publicly financed voucher programs—in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida—were enacted by state legislatures.

In the initiative process, individuals or private organizations originate the proposed measures, and the electorate decides their fate. That has been a difficult arena for voucher advocates to prevail in because voters are more likely to vote no if they are at all uncertain of the impact of a proposal, and because voucher forces historically have been outspent by teachers’ unions and other education groups opposed to such plans, said Mr. Bolick of the Institute for Justice.

Late last week, NEA officials were slated to consider allocating $4.5 million raised through a new dues increase to the anti-voucher campaign in California. They also planned to take up a proposal to add $1.7 million to the $1 million they have already contributed to the Michigan campaign against the voucher initiative there.

Still, some observers say the campaigns are on a more equal footing this year because the voucher proponents are better equipped financially to match, or possibly exceed, the spending of their opponents.

Mr. Draper has said he was willing to spend up to $20 million out of his own pocket to back the California measure. And the Michigan pro-voucher campaign, which has received significant financial backing from Amway Corp. President Dick DeVos, aims to raise $5 million to remain competitive with its opponents, said Edwin Patru, a spokesman for the Kids First! Yes! campaign.

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