- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2000

The National Education Association raised member dues Thursday to collect $6 million per year so the nation's largest teachers union can fight school vouchers and other related state ballot measures.
Vouchers are publicly funded scholarships that allow poor and needy public school students to attend private schools, if they wish.
"We have to help our state affiliates defeat vouchers and other ballot initiatives and to overcome the legislative crises that would undermine public education," NEA President Bob Chase told about 10,000 voting delegates at the union's annual representative assembly in Chicago.
NEA members voted to support a $5 per member annual dues increase. NEA leaders will use $3 of the increase to oppose ballot measures like those in Michigan and California, where voucher proponents promise a fierce battle in November over the publicly funded, private-school scholarships.
The other $2 will fund state and national media campaigns that promote "the value" of public education. The increase goes into effect this fall and is expected to bring in $10 million a year.
Voucher supporters say the union's actions shows they are primed for a fight on an educational issue that continues to gain steam, despite court challenges. The issue may also play a role in the presidential election Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush supports them; Democratic Vice President Al Gore opposes them.
Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Fordham Foundation in Washington, called the NEA's vote Thursday a sign of "panic" over various successful school-voucher programs around the nation.
"It's the pail of water that could dissolve the wicked witch, so they're throwing everything they can into this fight," says Mr. Finn, an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration.
So far, the teachers unions have "pulled out all the stops against vouchers" as they have on other state referendums, and they have been successful, Mr. Finn says. "That's what lots of money and big numbers of people with a single issue on their mind will do."
While NEA pockets are deep, the union will be up against well-financed pro-voucher interests this fall.
In Michigan, the voucher initiative has drawn the support of the Roman Catholic Church and the wealthy DeVos family, founders of the Amway Corp. In California, the voucher campaign is led by Silicon Valley billionaire Tim Draper, who has the resources and is primed for a brawl.
"We plan to spend at least $20 million," says a confident Chris Bertelli, spokesman for Mr. Draper's School Vouchers 2000 initiative.
In California and Michigan, the campaign for and against vouchers will spend far more money than the presidential campaigns, says Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz.
"It has been absolutely clear for years that the teachers unions will spend whatever it takes to defeat vouchers," says Mr. Unz, a conservative who led the successful ballot measure ending bilingual education in California. "Vouchers are life or death for the teachers unions in America."
A recent Field poll in California showed voters deadlocked, with 39 percent supporting vouchers and 39 opposing them. The rest are undecided.
"It's going to be a very tough battle, but it does look like they will spend enough money to match the unions dollar for dollar," Mr. Unz says.
Clint Bolick, litigation director at the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that has defended vouchers against lawsuits in Florida and Ohio, says he sees great irony in the increase, which will bring yearly dues paid by the NEA's 2.5 million members to $123 per person.
"Whereas we raise all of our funding from voluntary contributions, they have to force their members to contribute to the cause," he says.
"It's encouraging news in the sense that they clearly feel the battle is getting more difficult for them to sustain," Mr. Bolick says. "I hope that a number of teachers will look for ways to recover their dues, given that a number of public-school teachers support the concept of choice."
Mr. Unz says that with the size and political importance of states with voucher measures, and with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's school-voucher plan already in place, it is "inevitable that it will become a national political issue."
"I don't think either of the candidates really wants it to become a major issue, but I think they will be pulled in," he says.
Mr. Bolick says the national profile of vouchers depends on how Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore choose to handle it politically. Mr. Gore has announced his opposition and has been endorsed by both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers. Mr. Bush has said he supports vouchers, but has also been a defender of public education, sending both his daughters to public schools.
"I think Gore views it as an issue that will mobilize his base, namely the NEA, which at the national level is the Democratic Party's key constituent group," Mr. Bolick says.
"George W. Bush has not yet taken advantage of the political opportunities that school choice offers, so he may end up suffering political detriment as a result of Gore's attacks, while not reaping any of the benefits that will accrue, particularly outreach to the minority community."
Polls, Mr. Bolick says, show strong support for school choice across all demographic lines, including Democrats, blacks and Hispanics, and across income levels.
"Right now, [Mr. Bush] is not championing the issue aggressively or effectively, and that is disappointing," Mr. Bolick says. "He's absorbing blows from Al Gore without delivering any punches of his own."

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