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Voucher advocates not deflated after defeats in Calif. & Mich.

DETROIT (BP)–The national movement supporting publicly funded vouchers for private schools suffered a setback in the Nov. 7 general election with the defeat of ballot initiatives in California and Michigan. Proponents say, however, that vouchers continue to grow in popularity as a means for giving parents control over how their children are educated.

“We don’t believe that it would be appropriate for the state to give money to religious organizations for the teaching of children, but we do believe it is appropriate for the state to return money to the parents for them to decide where is the best place to educate their children,” said Barrett Duke, vice president for research and specialist for education issues at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“That is a position that is gaining in popularity, although obviously there are many hurdles to overcome before it becomes a widely popular response,” Duke said.

To date, according to The Heritage Foundation, voucher-style programs that include religiously affiliated schools currently are in place in Florida; Cleveland, Ohio; Milwaukee — the 11-year-old Milwaukee program being the oldest and most well-known. All are designed primarily to address concerns of families in inner-city areas with substandard schools.

Of the presidential candidates, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has supported education vouchers for nonpublic schools. Vice President Al Gore has supported school choice only among public schools, including charter schools.

The two voucher initiatives before voters Nov. 7 illustrated two vastly different approaches. The Michigan proposal was considered a model for a voucher program by education reformers nationwide, according to the Detroit News. Students in districts that fail to graduate two-thirds of their students would have been eligible for scholarships of $3,300 — half of the per-student amount spent for public schools — to be used for nonpublic schools. There were no income requirements, but such failing schools are generally found in lower-income districts.

Despite some high-profile backers, including the Catholic Church and Amway Corp. executive Dick DeVos, 68 percent of voters rejected the plan.

In California, a proposal more radical than anything yet attempted nationwide would have made $4,000 in scholarship money available to any student in the entire state who chose to attend a nonpublic school. Only 29.3 percent of voters favored the initiative — which had been controversial even among some voucher supporters because it was so sweeping and potentially expensive.

Duke noted that while it might have been less popular, it was a good example of a broader philosophy for school choice.

“Many people are not yet open to the idea of providing the same level of benefits for everyone regardless of household income, and those proposals like California’s are less likely to be able to pass — even though in my opinion they’re fairer,” he said.

“Just because a family has more money to spend on their family’s education doesn’t mean it’s fair for the state to discriminate and not participate in the education for that child just like they participate in the education of every other child.”

The defeat of the Michigan proposal indicated that it wasn’t just the scale of the program that concerned voters, however.

“Part of the problem is that those who are opposed to school vouchers have been able to raise enough questions in enough areas that just about everyone can find some reasons to be opposed,” Duke said. “The movement needs to take on each of those issues separately and develop a clear and considered response to each of the individual arguments that are made.”

The Center for Education Reform, a voucher advocacy group, has developed just such a list in its paper titled, “Nine Lies About School Choice: Answering the Critics.” Both that paper and Duke contend, for instance, that vouchers do not constitute an unconstitutional link between church and state, as has been charged.

“By the state giving the parent a voucher, the state is in no way endorsing any religion,” Duke said. “It is empowering the parents to get their child the best education possible. The parent chooses where that money will be spent.”

In a post-election statement, the Center for Education Reform noted that the results are more a sign of a formidable opposition than inherent weakness in the voucher movement.

“The voucher defeats in Michigan and California are being played by the opponents as a rejection of school choice, but in reality, these defeats, added to those of the past, are yet another indication of the difficulties faced by reformers when challenging the status quo with its years of entrenchment and well-organized ground troops,” the statement said.

The center did find encouraging signs in several other elections in which voucher proposals were considered major campaign issues. In Florida, for instance, the state commissioner of education’s race was seen as a referendum on Florida’s A+ /school choice program, with proponent Charlie Crist winning with 54 percent of the vote over an opponent who vowed to gut the plan.

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  • James Dotson