School Voucher Politics Heating Up in Michigan

Published June 1, 2000

A school voucher initiative on the November 2000 ballot in Michigan has attracted opposition from the teacher unions and other anti-voucher groups, as was expected, but the measure also has provoked a surprisingly high level of heated friction among Republicans in the state.

Backers of the Kids First! Yes! initiative filed petitions with Michigan’s Secretary of State on February 24 to place the measure on the November ballot. In addition to requiring that school vouchers be made available in school districts failing to graduate at least two-thirds of their high school students, the measure would require regular testing of teachers in academic subjects and guarantee public school funding. Local districts could enact their own voucher programs by a vote of the school board or the local electorate. Under Michigan’s current constitution, vouchers are prohibited.

A coalition opposed to the initiative, calling itself ALL Kids First!, announced on April 7 that it would challenge the petition signatures in hopes of keeping the initiative off the ballot.

But the initiative already had caused deep fissures within the Michigan Republican Party. The party’s Issues Committee voted overwhelmingly at last fall’s state party convention to support the initiative. However, Governor John Engler, a strong advocate of public school choice and charter schools, has since gone out of his way to derail the initiative, fearing it will fuel a high turnout of Democrat voters. At stake in the November election is the GOP’s narrow state House majority and control of the reapportionment process in the next legislative session.

Tensions over the initiative between Engler and state Republican Party Chair Betsy DeVos reached a boiling point in January. DeVos, whose husband Dick has pledged to raise millions to help pass the initiative, abruptly resigned and took most of the state party staff with her to manage the Kids First! Yes! campaign.

Now the state legislature has entered the fray as well. With the Governor’s backing, the Senate in April voted to include a provision in next year’s school aid budget bill warning school districts that their funds may be cut if voters approve vouchers. The full House has yet to vote on the measure, which Kids First! Yes! officials condemned as a ploy to discourage people from voting for the initiative. They noted a fiscal analysis prepared by the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency concluded that, at worst, vouchers would cost less than 1 percent of total state school funding or, at best, could result in savings to the state and more funding for public schools.

In the latest round of sparks to fly on the issue, voucher supporters filed several complaints against school districts alleging unlawful use of public monies to oppose the initiative. A legal complaint also has been filed against Kids First! Yes! by a state House Republican employee alleging the group is improperly using corporate contributions to defeat politicians who supported the school aid warning, rather than to promote its initiative.

Meanwhile, an effort to raise the cap on charter schools remains stalled in the state House, where a handful of Republicans refuse to support a compromise. As many as 110 new charter schools were seeking to open this fall. Opponents of raising the cap have seized on a string of news reports alleging failure by some charter schools to fully comply with Freedom of Information requests.

Still, popular support continues to surge for choice in Michigan. Independent surveys have shown more than 60 percent of voters willing to vote “Yes” for the Kids First! Yes! initiative, and choice supporters are expected to run a well-financed, multimillion-dollar campaign.

Robert Wittmann is a research fellow with TEACH Michigan Education Fund, whose Web site is at