California, Michigan Voters To Decide Voucher Debates
By Jason White, Assistant Staff Writer
The school voucher debate is no place for the rhetorically faint of heart.
Supporters of vouchers claim they would breathe some much-needed life into failing public school systems and provide an escape route for poor children. Foes claim vouchers would drive another nail in the coffins of poorly performing public schools. Both sides brandish life and death metaphors as often as school children wield No. 2 pencils.
This November 7, voters in California and Michigan will decide whom to believe as they cast ballots on one of the year's more fiercely contested school reform measures.
Should voters in either state approve vouchers, they would be the first ever to do so through popular referendum. In past years, voucher proposals have been rejected by voters in California, Colorado (twice), Michigan, Oregon and Washington.
But this is not a typical year.
In the past, voucher movements faced overwhelming competition from teachers' unions, who vastly outspent and out-maneuvered them. In 1993, foes of a California voucher ballot initiative spent over $20 million -- at least five times the spending of voucher advocates.
But this year, the bazooka-wielding teachers' unions will make their stand against opponents holding rocket launchers, not their usual six-shooters. Tim Draper in California and the DeVos family in Michigan -- both millionaires many times over -- as well as a host of deep-pocketed allies are spurring on the voucher movements in their states.
Thus far, they've spent millions of dollars to collect enough signatures to qualify their voucher proposals for the November ballot. And they have promised to spend millions more to ensure passage.
For his part, Draper, a venture capitalist and former member of California's state board of education, spent $2 million this past spring to collect signatures and will likely spend $20 million more on a voucher campaign that expects to burn through nearly $40 million by November.
While both voucher proposals have the backing of substantial private wealth, they differ significantly in their makeup.
California's voucher proposal is the more ambitious of the two. It would give all California parents, whether bank presidents or bank tellers, the option of using $4,000 in state money each year for tuition at a private school.
The sponsors of California's plan claim vouchers would enable poor children to escape the state's failing schools and infuse some competition into school systems where bureaucracy and regulation have stifled creativity and innovation. "This is an issue of fundamental fairness," says Chris Bertelli, spokesman for School Vouchers 2000, a California pro-voucher group. "Parents should have the choice to take their children out of schools that are failing."
A coalition of voucher opponents, including the California Teachers Association, the California PTA and the California Business Roundtable, claim vouchers would erode the quality of public schools, eliminate accountability and create chaos in the state's educational system.
"At a time we should be investing more in our neighborhood schools, [this measure] would abandon them," says Jon Lenzner, spokesman for No On Prop 38, California's anti-voucher coalition.
The California measure also includes a provision that would allow the state to raise its per-pupil spending to the national average -- an increase of roughly $1,000 per student. But Lenzner claims the funding provision is only a suggestion, not a guarantee.
State analysis has shown the voucher proposal would have annual costs ranging from $500 million to savings of $2.5 billion, depending on the number of children opting to enter the program.
Halfway across the country in Michigan, a more modest voucher proposal is roiling passions.
Under Michigan's proposal, $3,100 vouchers would be offered to children residing in school districts that fail to graduate at least two-thirds of entering students. At present, 38 of Michigan's 555 school districts would qualify for the program, with these districts among the state's poorest.
Vouchers would function as a social justice measure, says Greg McNeilly, spokesman for Kids First! Yes!, a Michigan pro-voucher group. McNeilly says the program would also provide accountability for the state's public schools by mandating teacher testing and raising the state's public education spending by over $1,200 per-pupil.
Also citing social justice as the main reason it favors Michigan's voucher proposal, the Michigan Catholic Church is throwing its full weight behind the measure. To date it has spent nearly $765,000 on the voucher campaign and could bring 800,000 to 900,000 voters to the polls in November. Critics point out that the Michigan Catholic Church's many schools figure to benefit from increased enrollment should voters approve vouchers.
The Michigan Education Association, the ACLU and the NAACP are a few of the major players opposed to Michigan's voucher proposal.
"This will drain dollars from public schools," says Bob Harris, spokesman for the MEA. "It's bad for kids, bad for teachers and bad for communities."
Harris believes vouchers would ultimately lead to a breakdown of community in the very areas that can least afford further discord.
"The voucher movement will fractionalize society," says Harris. "We don't need to be a Northern Ireland. We don't need to be a Bosnia. We don't need people to divide into groups. One thing that keeps them from doing that now is a strong public school system."
Polls in both states indicate a roughly even split among voters, though many remain undecided. According to Dane Waters, president of Washington, D.C.'s Initiative and Referendum Institute, this portends a tough road ahead for voucher advocates.
"Teachers spend a lot of money to raise doubt in the minds of voters--it's easy to demagogue this issue," says Waters. "And when voters aren't certain about something, they tend to maintain the status quo."
At present, Florida, Milwaukee and Cleveland have voucher programs up and running, though all three have faced legal challenges.
Milwaukee's ten-year old program, the oldest of the bunch, has met with mixed, though generally favorable, reviews from academics. It has also won the praise of the city's Democratic mayor, John Norquist, formerly an opponent of vouchers. When asked whether Milwaukee's voucher program helps public school children or private school children, his oft-quoted reply is "Yes."