- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Michigan has become a fierce battleground for school choice as polls show a tight race over a statewide school voucher initiative that has polarized parents, politicians and even churches.

The measure before voters, called Proposal 1, would remove the state's constitutional ban on indirect aid to private schools by giving up to $3,300 in private or parochial school scholarships to students who attend public schools where two-thirds of pupils fail to graduate.

A New York Times/CBS poll of registered Michigan voters conducted in late September found they support vouchers by 2-to-1. Another recent poll from the Marketing Resource Group in Lansing, Mich., found that about 45 percent of likely voters said they supported vouchers with 35 percent opposed.

A survey from the Detroit Free Press found that after hearing the entire 100-word ballot measure read aloud, 41 percent of voters said they supported it, while 43 said they opposed it.

With the race too close to call, both sides remain optimistic on their chances, each pledging to spend about $5 million to score a victory on Nov. 7.

"Polling on this issue is challenging … but we're very pleased on where we're at," said Greg McNeilly, spokesman for the pro-voucher Kids First Yes.

Said Laura Wotruba, spokeswoman for All Kids First, which opposes vouchers: "We're still going by the assumption that there is at least 20 percent of the electorate that has not made up their mind on how they will vote on Proposal 1. It's a big campaign here. I still think we are going to win."

With less than a month to go before the election, the battle in Michigan over school vouchers continues to draw national and international attention. While a similar ballot initiative in California appears headed for defeat, the Michigan contest remains hot.

The state is considered critical territory for presidential candidates Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, who are also neck and neck in the polls. Mr. Gore has said he is adamantly against vouchers, while Mr. Bush, who supports them, has said the issue is one for Michigan voters.

Politically, the measure has been divisive.

Republican Gov. John Engler is against Proposal 1, but has kept a low profile as the battle has raged. His stance, however, caused state GOP Chairman Betsy DeVos to resign from the party and join her husband, wealthy Amway founder Richard DeVos, who is helping to lead the pro-voucher campaign.

More than 460,000 Michigan voters signed petitions to put the measure on the ballot. If passed, it also would require the state legislature to adopt a teacher-testing program for all public schools as well as private schools that accept voucher students.

In addition, the plan would allow other local school districts to adopt vouchers by a local vote or by approval of the school board. The initiative holds public school per-pupil funding to the current level.

Only seven school districts would qualify for vouchers if the proposal passes this year, according to the Michigan Department of Education. Many of those schools are in Detroit, where black ministers are divided in their support.

Some, including those from the Wolverine Baptist Conference, are calling vouchers a salvation that will free poor children they say are trapped in inner-city schools. Other ministers are fiercely opposed, preaching to their flocks that with vouchers, neighborhood schools will be left behind.

Other voucher supporters include the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Catholic Conference. The Catholic Church will spend up to $2 million in support of the voucher measure.

Michigans bishops have sent two pro-voucher mailings to about 600,000 Catholic families, with another mass mailing planned for this month. Church leaders also have called on priests to preach six homilies advocating vouchers in the weeks before the election.

Critics of Proposal 1, including the state teachers unions along with many local chambers of commerce, say it contains a "hidden agenda," and they argue it could lead to higher taxes. The nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association, will spend about $1.7 million in Michigan to fight the voucher plan.

Although the measure initially effects mainly urban schools, it is opposed by some suburban parents who say vouchers would take money away from local public schools.

The secretary of state recently told parents and teachers in 17 suburban districts to stop using the school mail system to advance their message. She said their actions violated campaign finance law, which forbids use of public money to pay for an endorsement of either side of a ballot issue.

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