- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2000

Voters may not have been clear about very much on Tuesday, but they were crystal-clear on one issue: they don't like educational vouchers. By margins of 2-to-1, voucher proposals in California and Michigan went down to defeat.

Proponents may try to find excuses. California's Proposition 38, they could say, was overly ambitious, attempting to convert the entire California school system to vouchers in one fell swoop. Michigan's Proposal 1 was more narrowly drafted but fell victim to politics: The state's influential Republican governor, John Engler, turned his back on the measure out of fear it might lure hordes of Democrats to the polls and doom the re-election chances of his close friend and ally, Sen. Spencer Abraham.

There is certainly something to these explanations. Mr. Abraham was indeed defeated, though it's questionable whether the voucher measure had much to do with it. And even Tim Draper's $20-plus million in California wasn't enough to overcome the powerful scare campaign against vouchers mounted by the National Education Association and the public school lobby.

But the fact both proposals were defeated by similar and sizable margins suggests a simpler explanation: voters just don't buy the voucher idea.

This would appear to be supported by the fact that virtually all of the ballot measures favoring more spending on public school systems won voter support on Tuesday. Voters seemed to be saying more money is preferable to root-and-branch reform. In particular, the biggest single block of voters, suburbanites, appeared downright hostile to vouchers at least if you believe the blizzard of yard signs counseling a no vote in my neck of the woods, suburban Detroit.

Amway Corp. executive and heir Dick DeVos, who financed nearly half the $13 million spent on behalf of Proposal 1 in Michigan, bravely promised that the defeat was "a beginning, not an end." He is keeping the Proposal 1 campaign team intact, hoping to "learn from experience" and then resume the fight in Michigan as well as other states. One of the lessons, according to Mr. DeVos: "We need to tighten campaign laws to prevent public bodies, like school districts, from using taxpayer money to sway voters."

There is little doubt that the school establishment went all out to defeat vouchers. The Michigan secretary of state several times ordered public school boards and school officials to cease and desist from electioneering. And the support for educational choice promised by Detroit's influential black ministers melted away after a private meeting with Democratic leaders who are widely believed to have threatened withdrawal of support for such governmental goodies as Headstart funds for church-sponsored schools.

Reports of the death of educational choice are likely to prove highly premature. Washington-based conservative activist Grover Norquist notes that "our polling consistently shows that even people who oppose vouchers support the idea of educational choice by substantial margins. They see the need for alternatives." Adds Adam Meyerson of the Heritage Foundation: "We may lose some battles, but we are still winning the war."

But it seems unlikely anybody will run vouchers back up the flagpole in Michigan or California any time soon. At the very least, the experiences in those states the need for an incremental approach, much as Democrats switched to an incremental approach to health care reform in the wake of the HillaryCare debacle.

The current Supreme Court, for example, has upheld programs that allow the use of taxpayer funding for private schools if the purpose is primarily educational. If George W. Bush is elected president, he has vowed to voucherize some of the federal money that flows to K-12 schools essentially an extension of the principle behind the G.I. Bill and Pell Grants. And if Republicans keep control of Congress, they are likely to make another run at turning the District of Columbia into a voucher model.

Other proposals for encouraging educational choice might also have a better chance. Michigan's Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the premier think tank out in the states, has put forward a tax-credit approach that it believes might avoid much of the constitutional baggage of Proposal 1 (though tax credits would doubtless be attacked as benefiting the rich). The center argues that tax credits also would be less likely to lead to government interference in private education.

The most powerful impetus for reform remains the inability of the existing system to right itself. In a busy, complex political year, voters could be scared into rallying around the public school monopoly one more time. But if public schools show no signs of improving despite infusions of funds and promises of administrative reform, demand for the kind of built-in accountability that educational competition would provide is only likely to increase.

Tom Bray is a columnist for the Detroit News.

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