School-voucher debate heads to the polls

California and Michigan voucher initiatives renew the controversial education issue.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Backed by deep-pocket millionaires, California and Michigan are giving new life to the controversial national debate on school choice.

Two citizen campaigns now under way could drastically alter public education in their states and shape the direction and vitality of American education reform.

Both campaigns deal with laws that would provide parents with state-funded vouchers to help pay tuition at private or parochial schools. Boosted by recent court rulings that say the government can use taxpayer money to support private schools, the votes could either bolster or stall the growing pro-voucher movement.

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"These are very important campaigns to watch not only because of the size of these states but because of the momentum they will create for other states to do likewise," says Bob Chase of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. It is fighting the initiatives.

Currently, about 70,000 students are taking advantage of vouchers, chiefly in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida (Florida's law was struck down as unconstitutional, but continues on appeal). Eleven states have active legislation to create voucher programs, including Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington.

Because the Michigan and California campaigns are already out in force - and backed by big bucks - the debate is expected to reach a wider forum than ever.

"The amount of money being invested in this fight assures the [voucher] issue will have the highest profile yet," Mr. Chase says.

Once a central tenet of the Bush administration's "America 2000" program to revitalize education, vouchers have long been championed by conservative and business groups as a way of improving education by creating competition between schools.

Critics, such as California Gov. Gray Davis, who is already proclaiming their dangers in television ads, say vouchers would hurt financially strapped schools and skim off the best students.

Michigan's initiative would mandate teacher testing, raise funding limits, and provide $3,300 "scholarships" for parents who want to move their children out of failing school districts. California's Proposition 38 - offering parents $4,000 to send their kids to private or parochial schools - would be far more revolutionary, affecting the state's 6 million students, 8,600 schools, and 280,000 teachers.

Both would presumably face long court battles on the legality of using state money to fund religious schools. "These decisions are significant for how they might change the way people educate their kids," says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States. "They also force the public to grapple with the complexities of church/state separation and ... ailing public schools."

California has slid in several areas over the past 30 years, from test scores to teacher salaries. Michigan's graduation rate is below 50 percent for the bottom 300,000 of its 1.8 million students; 85 percent of dropouts are incarcerated within five years.

"People have finally realized that they will have to pay more for these failures in later social costs if they don't fix them now," says Greg McNeilly of the Michigan campaign. "We want to convince them this is the best fix."

But partly because of the complexities of education reform and the fear of withdrawing support from public schools, experts say, no voucher initiative has passed. The initiatives do well in early polling, but fall to defeat when detractors point up limitations.

"It's been easy for opponents of these measures to cast enough doubt on vouchers that voters shy away from the possible consequences," says Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "The fact is, no one can say with certainty how voucher systems will affect the current system."

Still, the propaganda wars have already begun here, with one set of ubiquitous TV ads proclaiming the virtues of choice, while the others say they will destroy the public school system.

Defeat of a similar 1993 California initiative came after proponents were outspent nearly 10 to 1. The current one is backed by Tim Draper, the Silicon Valley billionaire who has pledged $20 million. In Michigan, Richard DeVos, co-founder of Amway, and Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, are also donating millions.

The percentage of US students affected by these two initiatives - nearly 1 in 6 school-age kids - makes them watershed votes. And with education still a major concern, the votes are expected to be a lightning rod for education reformers at all levels.

"Besides the presidential elections, Congress, and governor votes, this will probably be the most visible initiative race in the country," says Mark Di Camillo, director of the California Poll about the California vote. "Because the education reform issue is so high on voters' agendas, the races pull will be so powerful that even the presidential candidates will be drawn in to their peril."

Mr. Di Camillo says what will help sway voters by November are the attempts to interpret how vouchers have fared in places like Milwaukee, where vouchers have been in place since 1989.

To date, experts say, the data and interpretation are mixed.

"There is so much money behind the promotion of vouchers, as well as those who would destroy them, that it is very hard to assess the Milwaukee experiment," says Alex Molnar, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. "This is a political question being driven on both sides by money. The issue is going to keep coming back until Washington itself creates some kind of national experiment in vouchers."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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