Voucher Wars: Dispatches from the Michigan Front

Published September 1, 2000

In November, Michigan voters will decide if they want to amend the State Constitution to permit indirect aid to private schools via parental choice, while still maintaining the constitutional bar on direct aid to private schools. Earlier this year, the Kids First! Yes! organization successfully filed over 450,000 signatures of Michigan parents and taxpayers to place the issue on the ballot.

The initiative has three provisions: guaranteed per-pupil funding for every K-12 public school student in Michigan; regular testing of all the state’s public and private school teachers; and opportunity scholarships–vouchers–of about $3,300 for every Michigan parent whose child attends school in a district that graduates fewer than two-thirds of its students from high school. Voucher programs could be created in other districts by approval of local school boards or approval by voters in a referendum.

According to campaign co-chairman Dick DeVos, the Kids First! Yes! organization includes a very diverse coalition of school choice supporters–black and white Christian pastors, the Michigan Catholic Conference, Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida, rabbis from the Jewish community, an imam from the Islamic community, plus the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

An anti-voucher group calling itself All Kids First! is coordinating opposition to the initiative. Through the beginning of June, the group had raised about a half-million dollars, most of it coming from special interest groups linked in one way or another to the state’s public education system.

Since January, supporters have donated $2.4 million to the Kids First! Yes! campaign.

Catholics Promote Initiative

In late June, Michigan’s Catholic bishops mailed the first in a series of three letters about school vouchers to the state’s 2.3 million Roman Catholics, encouraging them to vote for state-funded vouchers on the November ballot. In the letter, titled “A Just Beginning For All,” the bishops state that “expanding educational choice is not an option; it is a requirement of social justice.” They point out that, with the cost of education rising, low-income families currently have no choice but to send their children to poor schools.

“Is it just to deny families who are most economically disadvantaged the same opportunity to choose that the rest of us enjoy?” asks the letter, sent by Detroit’s archbishop, Cardinal Adam Maida; Bishop Carl F. Mengeling of the Lansing Archdiocese; and bishops from Gaylord, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Marquette, and Saginaw.

As well as noting that both public and private education are strengthened by healthy competition, the bishops point out vouchers are not a new idea for Michigan. The state already provides its citizens with voucher-like funds for use at private preschools and private colleges. Only K-12 students are outside the spectrum of state support for education.

In July, the Kids First! Yes! ballot initiative–now officially known as Proposal 1–was endorsed by the Catholic Campaign for America. CCA is an influential lay movement dedicated to renewing the faith of Catholics and encouraging them to transform American public policy through civic involvement.

Misuse of Tax Dollars Charged

Kids First! Yes! has filed six complaints against Michigan school districts for illegally spending public education tax dollars to wage political attacks against education reform proposals. Most recently, the Lenawee Intermediate School District was cited for violation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act in a complaint filed with the Michigan Secretary of State.

“It’s a serious charge,” said the editors of the Adrian Daily Telegram. “The government using our money to promote its political agenda smacks of totalitarianism.”

“If school employees want to campaign against [Kids First! Yes!] on their own time, have at it,” continued the editorial. “But stop using the public’s money.”

Schools Lean on Pro-Voucher Businesses

Just days after administrators at Macomb County’s Warren Consolidated Schools were caught illegally sending home anti-Kids First! Yes! propaganda in children’s report cards, local media outlets reported officials there had adopted a resolution promising to deny local businesses contracts if they support the education reform ballot proposal.

“Why should we do business with people who are trying to put us out of business?” asked Brian Whiston, a high-level opponent of the Kids First! Yes! plan.

“I think it’s time we step up and take a stand on something,” said Warren Consolidated School Board President John Green.

State law prohibits school officials from using tax dollars to further their personal political agendas.

“This is just the latest example of the arrogant, abusive, and offensive attitude that has come to define education reform opponents in Michigan,” commented Greg Brock, campaign manager for the Kids First! Yes! education reform plan.

Oakland Press Slams Opposition

One of the most widely read newspapers in the state’s second-largest county recently took the Michigan Education Association (MEA) to task for its opposition to education reform.

“Like their opposition to just about any change in the way we educate children, teachers in general–and the MEA in particular–haven’t veered from their ‘my way only’ mentality, one that continues to cost them support from the general public,” wrote the editors of The Oakland Press. “Hopefully, someday, the MEA will start looking at change in terms of what’s best for the kids as opposed to what’s best for the teachers.”

Milwaukee Public Schools Benefit from Choice

When nearly two dozen influential Michigan pastors and community leaders traveled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in early June, they heard for themselves how the city’s school choice program had produced benefits not only for the children attending choice schools, but also for the children “left behind” in the public schools.

As a result of the competition from vouchers, improvements have been noted in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), which are working to become more accountable to parents. For example, MPS now offers parents a guarantee that students will be able to read by the second grade.

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

For more information . . .

Keep up-to-date on Michigan’s ballot Proposal 1 at the Kids First! Yes! Web site, http://www.kidsfirstyes.com. Opponents also have a site, at http://www.allkidsfirst.com.