Initiative Campaigns Fight Misinformation

Published November 1, 2000

Cartoon Misrepresents Vouchers to Blast Catholics in Michigan

The Kids First! Yes! organization, sponsors of the Proposal 1 voucher initiative on Michigan’s November 7 ballot, were prepared for their opponents to attack them in the media. They didn’t expect the media itself to do the attacking.

An editorial cartoon in the September 26 issue of the Detroit Free Press aimed the power of the press at the voucher initiative and the Roman Catholic Church, a key supporter of the initiative. The cartoon, drawn by Mike Thompson for the newspaper’s editorial page, featured the Kids First! Yes! organization promoting a slicing, dicing, chopping, shredding, and smoke-blowing “Vouch-o-Matic” that would shred the constitutional separation of church and state, suck tax dollars out of public education, and bamboozle thousands of voters. “Rush your tax dollars to the Roman Catholic Church,” urged the cartoon’s mock ad.

Free Press editorial page editor Ron Dzwonkowski defended the cartoon, saying its point was to warn voters that passage of the initiative would bring down a “longstanding” church-state wall. “That’s simply true,” he declared.

However, Proposal 1 does not call for sending tax dollars to the Catholic Church or any other church, but instead would rush tax dollars to largely low-income, minority parents to educate their children. Direct aid to religious institutions–like that presented in Thompson’s cartoon–is barred by the Michigan Constitution and is generally regarded as breaching the church-state wall, as Dzwonkowski points out.

But Proposal 1 would not change the constitutional bar on direct aid. Proposal 1 instead would remove the bar on indirect funding of nonpublic schools, which was placed in the Michigan Constitution only 30 years ago.

Such indirect aid–giving the money to parents–forms the basis of all modern voucher programs since it is generally regarded as not breaching the church-state wall.

Catholic leaders were outraged at the portrayal of the church as a “money-grubbing” huckster. Sister Monica Kostielney, president of the Michigan Catholic Conference, characterized the cartoon as “religious bigotry,” saying it was filled with hate. Ned McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit, demanded the newspaper repudiate the cartoon’s “anti-Catholic sentiment.”

“The cartoon crosses the line of reasoned commentary,” McGrath wrote in an open letter to the newspaper. “It is vitriolic, misleading and, most troubling of all, blatantly anti-Catholic.”

Dzwonkowski dismissed the bigotry charge, saying that bigotry was “one of the things we criticize most often on this page.”

Michigan’s Catholic bishops have made the passage of the statewide voucher initiative their top priority for this election year, according to a letter the Michigan Catholic Conference sent to every priest in the state in September. The Conference is part of a diverse coalition of political, religious, and business leaders assembled by businessman Dick DeVos and the Rev. Eddie Edwards to do battle for the initiative.

Proposal 1 has four elements. It

  • provides for regular teacher testing;
  • raises the guaranteed funding per student to current levels;
  • gives vouchers worth 50 percent of the guaranteed funding amount to students in districts that graduate less than two-thirds of their students; and
  • allows other school districts to opt-in to the voucher provision if they so choose.

Michigan’s 2.3 million Catholics will be informed about the initiative in homilies that clergy have been asked to preach in the weeks leading up to the election, according to a recent account in the Detroit Free Press. Baptist ministers are split on the issue, with some favoring passage of Proposal 1 and others adamantly opposed.

Space for Voucher Students?

If the measure passes, some 200,000 students in seven cities will become eligible for vouchers, including 167,000 in Detroit. Private and parochial schools potentially could absorb up to 15,000 of those students by filling existing classrooms and opening shuttered schools, according to a Detroit Free Press survey. Detroit’s Catholic schools already have about 9,000 students, 80 percent of whom are non-Catholic.

Those 15,000 seats are likely to be sufficient to cope with demand in the first year of the program, based on response rates to voucher programs in other cities. After 10 years, Milwaukee’s program serves less than 10 percent of the city’s public school population, even though up to 15 percent are eligible. When the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation offered privately funded vouchers to virtually every family in Edgewood, Texas, 5.7 percent of the district’s students transferred to private schools in the first year. Four years later, that figure had grown to 12.9 percent.

“Research” Misused to Undermine Vouchers in California

California’s voucher initiative, Proposition 38, came under heavy attack in September from the National Education Association, which misused information from a group of academic researchers as ammunition to undermine support for school choice and at the same time promote their own favorite educational reform strategy: reducing class size.

The teacher union used information from the report “A Costly Gamble or Serious Reform?” issued in September by the Policy Analysis for California Education group (PACE), a cooperative venture between the schools of education at the University of California – Berkeley and Stanford University. In its own words, PACE “is an independent policy research center whose primary aim is to enrich education policy debates with sound analysis and hard evidence.”

The PACE report examined the Proposition 38 initiative and considered a number of possible scenarios that could result as a consequence of issuing vouchers in California. The NEA took two of those possible scenarios–i.e., speculations preceded with the word “if”–and reported them as the report’s conclusions.

Using one of the report’s examples as if it were the report’s conclusion, the NEA then claimed the proposed California voucher initiative “would be far more expensive and affect many fewer students than the proven education reforms, such as reducing class size.” In fact, the report’s authors use class size reform only as an example to compare the cost of one possible voucher scenario to a reform the public is more familiar with.

Again wielding an example scenario as if it were the authors’ conclusion, the NEA also claimed that “reducing class size in California costs half as much per year as Proposition 38 would, while serving three times as many students.” The report’s authors, however, draw no such conclusion, speculating only that the voucher proposal could cost about $3 billion to serve 650,000 students if no public school students used vouchers during the first four years of the program. Such a scenario is highly improbable.

PACE researchers did not estimate what percentage of California’s public school students would use vouchers, nor did they report how many students had used them in other voucher programs. For example, 5.7 percent of the students in Edgewood, Texas, immediately transferred to private schools when the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation offered privately funded vouchers to virtually every family in the district.

Now, four years later, voucher students represent 12.9 percent of the district’s total enrollment. Existing private schools have expanded to meet the demand and a new school opened this year to take in almost 200 students. If a similar percentage of students transferred after four years in California, net savings would be a half-billion dollars. If 15 percent transferred, savings would rise to $1 billion a year.

Proposition 38 is being promoted by Local Choice 2000, a California group backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist and children’s advocate Tim Draper. The initiative provides vouchers as well as increased funding of public schools. Specifically, the initiative

  • guarantees public school funding of at least the national average per pupil funding;
  • makes every child eligible for a $4,000 educational scholarship, redeemable at nonpublic schools;
  • provides that scholarship amounts will be at least half of the per-pupil funding for public schools.

The battle over vouchers in California is expected to be the nation’s most expensive and most contentious fight over vouchers.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.