Vouchers Go Down to Defeat

Michigan and California voters squash initiatives allowing public dollars for private schools.

By David Keenon

Voters in California and Michigan squashed well-financed school voucher initiatives in their respective states by better than 2 to 1 margins on Nov. 7.

The results marked the ninth and 10th straight defeats of state voucher initiatives since 1972. No voucher initiative has ever won on a state ballot.

The overwhelming margins of defeat, 71 percent to 29 percent in California and 69 percent to 31 percent in Michigan, were a sharp setback to pro-voucher forces. National voucher advocates had pinned their hopes on the Michigan measure, bankrolling a campaign that outspent anti-voucher opponents, $14 million to $7 million. The effort was financed by Amway President Dick DeVos, with huge support from the Catholic Church and well-heeled contributors like Wal-Mart heir John Walton.

But the big spending by pro-voucher advocates, who called themselves Kids First! Yes!, was unable to overcome an effective voter education campaign conducted by a coalition of more than 250 organizations in Michigan opposed to school vouchers.

Calling themselves ALL Kids First!, the anti-voucher coalition was headed by the Michigan Education Association and the Michigan Association of School Boards. In the months leading up to the election, the coalition stressed that no one could pin down how much the school voucher initiative would cost taxpayers. Estimates ranged from $28 million to $750 million.

The uncertainty stemmed from the fact that the Michigan proposal, unlike the voucher plans currently operating in Milwaukee and Cleveland, was not clearly limited to low-income families. While it was supposedly targeted to struggling districts with low graduation rates, the proposal also permitted local school boards, by a simple majority vote, to endorse vouchers and make all students in the district eligible for the $3,300 vouchers regardless of family income. In addition, voucher proponents in local districts could petition to hold a school voucher referendum by collecting signatures of just 10 percent of the number of voters in the most recent school board election. In some smaller school districts in Michigan, that would require fewer than 25 signatures to place the school voucher question on a local ballot.

“It was impossible to know how much it was going to cost,” said Kirk Curtis, general campaign manager for anti-voucher coalition, ALL Kids First! “Voters aren’t going to approve any proposal when they’re unsure what it’s going to cost them.”

The well-financed pro-voucher advocates started airing television and radio ads in September including spots by Wisconsin voucher advocates Governor Tommy Thompson, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist and former Milwaukee Superintendent of Schools Howard Fuller.

The anti-voucher coalition, which couldn’t afford to begin airing its own television ads until October, countered with a “ground” attack featuring 135,000 yard signs. “We sent out millions of pieces of literature and began to distribute 135,000 yard signs, the most ever used in Michigan political history,” Curtis said. “Polling showed our numbers remained the same in September, even though the other side was on TV all the time.”

PUBLIC MOOD SHIFTS

Anti-voucher forces began airing TV ads on Oct. 3, emphasizing that vouchers hurt neighborhood public schools, that private schools “pick and choose” their students, and that vouchers could mean higher taxes. By mid-October, polling showed that the school voucher initiative was doomed.

On election day, voters in all 83 Michigan counties rejected vouchers. Voters in Detroit, where polling last spring showed support for the initiative by a 4 to 1 margin, said “no” to vouchers, 70 percent to 30 percent. Detroit’s early support began to flip-flop once voters began to learn about the proposal and after the NAACP and the city’s Baptist Ministerial Association came out against vouchers.

The California voucher initiative also was not “means tested” and would have provided $4,000 vouchers for every child, no matter their family income. It ran into similarly strong opposition though it too had strong financial backing, in this case from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper and his father who provided more than 90 percent of the financing for the campaign. But in the end, the measure, Proposition 38, went down to a more than 2 to 1 defeat, losing even among the poor Black and Hispanic voters who were targeted as the “likely beneficiaries” of the voucher plan.

In California, African Americans voted down vouchers 68 percent to 32 percent, while Latinos opposed vouchers 77 percent to 23 percent, according to People for the American Way Foundation, a group supporting public education. In Michigan, African Americans voted against vouchers roughly 80 percent to 20 percent.

In the wake of the elections, Bob Chase, president of the NEA, declared, “The thorough thrashing on vouchers in California and Michigan should be a death knell to a bad idea.”

But voucher proponents in both states vowed to return.

“This is the beginning of a movement that is going to change the way people are educated,” said California voucher initiative author Tim Draper. “We’re just going to keep coming back.”

Added Michigan’s DeVos: “For those who thought there would be just this one time and they’d be done with us, I have some very bad news. We are not going to give up.”

The battle will now shift to state legislatures and even more crucially to the Courts. Legal observers expect the Supreme Court to eventually hear a voucher case, possibly one stemming from the Florida or Cleveland voucher programs, that could have a decisive impact. (Cleveland and Milwaukee have city-wide voucher programs open to low-income students, while Florida began a statewide voucher program in 1999, open to students from “failing” schools.)

Curtis, of Michigan’s successful anti-voucher campaign, also warned that voucher crusaders like Draper and DeVos must be taken seriously.

“It’s a mistake to think all is well,” he said. “We know that we have pockets of problems in our schools that the public wants fixed. Everybody needs to get busy and start working together to improve our schools, or the voucher folks will be back.”

Dennis Keenon is editor of the MEA Voice, a publication of the Michigan Education Association