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Voters In California And Michigan Face Referenda On Voucher Aid To Religious Schools

Timothy Draper, a venture capitalist in California's Silicon Valley, is not a big fan of his state's public schools. Draper has not only suggested that the education system may need to be privatized, he's also referred to public schools as "socialistic."

Not long ago, he sang a significantly different tune. In fact, Draper used to serve as a member of the California Board of Education. But in the 1990s, he did what a lot of other multi-millionaires do: he withdrew his four children from public schools and began paying private school tuition.

After his switch, the eccentric 42-year-old entrepreneur decided to do something radical. Late last year, Draper announced that he was launching an ambitious drive to override the church-state separation provisions of the California Constitution and make a private school tuition voucher available to every student in the nation's largest state.

Draper then paid millions of dollars for a team of signature collectors to garner the petitions necessary to get the initiative on the ballot. As a result, Proposition 38 will go before California voters Nov. 7, the second time in eight years that the state's electorate will consider the issue.

Two thousand miles away, another voucher crusade is under way, but with an entirely different cast of characters.

In Michigan, the state's Roman Catholic hierarchy has partnered with the family of Dick DeVos, the conservative Michigan millionaire who has amassed a vast fortune through the Amway Corporation, to push for a statewide voucher program of their own.

Like their ideological allies in California, voucher supporters in Michigan have succeeded in getting the issue on the November ballot, marking the third time since 1970 that Michigan voters will consider a proposal to publicly fund religious and other private schools.

For supporters of public education and church-state separation, fighting the voucher war on two fronts looms as a daunting challenge against extremely well financed competitors.

"A campaign against a voucher referendum can be helpful because it allows us to make our case against these dangerous schemes by taking our message directly to the voters," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "We've found that time and again, when people hear the whole story, common sense prevails and vouchers are rejected."

"But," Lynn added, "fighting against two statewide referenda simultaneously, particularly in two of the largest states in the nation, takes a lot more work and costs a lot more money. Add to that equation wealthy financiers on the other side and you've got a pretty difficult job."

Lynn's point highlights the unique challenge that Americans United and other voucher opponents face this election season. While no voucher referendum has ever been passed by voters, opponents have never had to take on statewide campaigns in two states at the same time. Nor have voucher opponents ever had to take on Tim Draper's millions.

While Draper has declined to tell reporters exactly how wealthy he is, he hasn't been shy about the financial commitment he's willing to make.

For example, at a recent meeting of African-American ministers in a South Central Los Angeles church, Draper announced that he would spend at least $20 million of his own money to, as he put it, "fix education" in California. Spending a small fortune on the campaign "won't cut into my lifestyle one bit," he told the audience.

Draper's quirky personality has earned almost as much attention as his finances. During the L.A. event, for example, he brought his own staffer to the church to deliver his introduction, an opening that told the ministers that Draper is "an instrument of God's hand, like Rosa Parks." Draper has even labeled himself a "freedom fighter."

Draper could not simply lobby the California legislature to pass a sweeping voucher program, even if there were a political will to do so, because of the strict language of the state constitution. Article IX of the California Constitution reads, "No public money shall ever be appropriated for the support of any sectarian or denominational school, or any school not under the exclusive control of the officers of the public schools."

Bound by the document's prohibitions, Draper drafted an initiative that  amends the California Constitution and writes into stone a sweeping private school subsidy that is likely to cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

While voucher programs already in place (and under court challenge) in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida target students from poor families or those in schools with low performance on state exams, Draper's Prop. 38 would require taxpayers to finance a $4,000 voucher to send any child to a private school, including religious schools, regardless of the student's family income or the quality of the local public school. The plan would be phased in to cover all grades by the fall of 2004.

"If it were for just one type of person, it would mean more bureaucracy," Draper told Time magazine in July.

Putting a price tag on the voucher program, should it pass, has generated a variety of estimates. However, since the plan would cover the 600,000 children who already attend private schools in California, even if the program were to give vouchers to only these students, it would cost at least $2.4 billion. Considering that there are over 6 million children in the state's public schools, and each would be eligible for the $4,000 voucher if voters approve the Draper initiative, the cost could be astronomical.

Critics say specific features of Draper's voucher scheme make it even worse than others already in place.

For example, private schools that accept voucher students in the Milwaukee, Wisc., program cannot charge additional money for tuition beyond the amount covered by the state stipend. Draper's plan fails to provide that protection, so schools would be free to discriminate against prospective students based on their ability to pay school tuition should it exceed the $4,000 covered by the voucher.

Moreover, while students in Florida's program are assigned randomly, the proposed California system would allow schools to maintain selective admissions policies. Students could not be denied enrollment on the basis of race or ethnicity, but no rules would forbid discrimination on the grounds of religion, physical disabilities or academic performance.

With the potential of billions of tax dollars flowing from the state treasury to private religious institutions, the same church-state constitutional arguments that have been raised against parochial school subsidies for decades apply to the Draper plan as well.

Despite recent court defeats for vouchers in Ohio and Florida, supporters of Prop. 38 seem blithely unconcerned about constitutional difficulties.

"[The plan] has been reviewed by a team of constitutional legal experts and will withstand any legal challenge mounted by disgruntled opponents after passage," the Draper campaign says in promotional materials on the group's website. "There are no issues that can be raised with respect to the separation of church and state."

AU's Lynn disagrees. "I'm not sure who their 'legal experts' are, but they're mistaken about court rulings on the voucher question," Lynn said. "In just the last couple of years, we've seen decisions from a federal district court, a state supreme court and a federal appellate court that all say the same thing: taxpayers cannot be forced to finance religious education."

Another potential roadblock for voucher supporters in California is evidence that the same public schools Draper rails against are showing marked signs of improvement. After several years of finishing near the bottom in national comparisons of standardized test scores, reform efforts implemented by Gov. Gray Davis (D) since election in 1998 appear to be having an effect.

In July, the state released achievement test scores that reflected gains in nearly all grades and subjects.

"The programs are beginning to work," Davis said in announcing the results. "My message is to stay the course. The voucher is a 180-degree mistake."

Draper's gambit raises the voucher issue less than a decade after the last statewide campaign. In 1993, California voters were offered a different voucher initiative, one that was soundly defeated. Proponents of the measure never maintained an organized campaign, and voucher opponents outspent the plan's supporters by a nearly 10 to 1 ratio. When the dust cleared, 70 percent of the voters had voted against the referendum.

With Draper backing the drive, Prop. 38's financial backing is secured.

As California entrepreneur Ron Unz, best known for spearheading a drive against bilingual education in the state, recently told The Washington Times, Draper's campaign is the "best-funded voucher initiative ever."

In addition to his financial commitment, Draper has assembled a staff to run the campaign that features seasoned political professionals. Helping oversee the project is Joe Gaylord, a longtime aide and strategist for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Pat Rosenstiel, who is managing Draper's campaign after serving as the Midwest political director for Steve Forbes' presidential bid.

"We're not bringing a knife to a gunfight," Rosenstiel told The Washington Post in July. "[Voucher opponents] are not going to have clean airtime. We're going to be aggressive on the air, on the ground, on the Internet. They've never seen an adversary like us before."

Increasingly, it appears that Draper and his staff are having trouble recruiting allies for their crusade. A July 31 campaign finance report showed that over the first six months of 2000, supporters of Prop. 38 had raised $3.8 million. While that kind of war chest is cause for concern, almost all of the money came from Draper personally, as opposed to a broad base of backers throughout the state. The next biggest contributor was San Francisco-based financier and state Republican activist Howard Leach, who gave $100,000.

Voucher opponents raised $1.1 million over the same period, with members of the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers and the California School Employees Association providing most of the contributions. An anti-voucher coalition "No on 38" is spearheading the opposition to the initiative. (For online info, visit www.NoOnProp38.com).

At this stage of the campaign, the outcome is uncertain. A Field Poll released in late June reflected that the public was evenly split 39 percent for, 39 percent against. If recent years are any indication, voucher proposals often poll well early on, but then support fades as details become more widely understood. Draper hopes to buck those trends by spending the money needed to persuade voters.

Voucher boosters in Michi­gan, meanwhile, may not have $20 million to spend, but they remain a formidable and well-funded force.

A group calling itself "Kids First! Yes!" is leading the voucher drive in the Great Lakes state. While California's Prop. 38 would make tuition money available to any student, Michigan's Proposal 1 would offer publicly financed private school tuition in school districts where fewer than two-thirds of students graduate (Currently about 30 of the state's 550 districts would be eligible.) The vouchers would be worth about $3,100. The plan would also allow voters in every school district in the state to set up mini-voucher programs.

Kids First! Yes! describes itself in promotional materials as a "broad-based coalition of urban and suburban parents, educators, churches, synagogues and business leaders."

Campaign finance reports with the Michigan Department of State, however, point to a small group of financial backers. Nearly $4 million was raised between Jan. 1 and June 6 of this year, but a closer look at the official filing reflects just how small the number of supporters really is.

Of the money collected, $1 million each came from Dick DeVos, the conservative Amway millionaire, his wife Betsy DeVos, former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, and Betsy's mother, Elsa Prince. On top of that, several of Michigan's Catholic dioceses have contributed generously to the campaign, giving a total of $740,000 to the effort, including $450,000 from the Archdiocese of Detroit alone.

"I have to laugh when they call this a 'broad-based' campaign," said Kirk Curtis, a spokesperson for ALL Kids First, a coalition opposing the voucher referenda. "They've got Dick, Betsy, Grandma Prince and the Archdiocese. 'Broad based,' my foot!"

Michigan currently has some of the strictest state constitutional provisions in the nation against taxpayer funds for religious schools. Article VIII of Michigan's Constitution currently states, "No public monies or property shall be appropriated...to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school." It also says, "No tuition voucher...shall be provided, directly or indirectly, to support the attendance of any student...at any such nonpublic school." If successful, the referendum would alter the state constitution's language to remove prohibitions on "indirect" aid and write the voucher plan into law.

Michigan's Prop. 1 is similar to the California initiative in that it fails to impose regulations that would require religious and other private schools to be more accessible.

ALL Kids First's Curtis told Church & State that parents won't have "school choice" if given a voucher under the plan being considered.

"It will be the private schools that pick and choose the students," Curtis told Church & State. "There's not one word in this proposal about imposing any requirements on private schools about changing their admission policies. It's not a mistake the initiative was done this way; it was done with the religious schools in mind."

As a result, private schools that get public funding through the voucher program would be able to deny admission to students who couldn't pay the remaining tuition not covered by the voucher. Applicants who were the "wrong" religion or had physical or academic difficulties could also be rejected.

The Michigan proposal faces the same constitutional problems that have hampered similar programs in other states. Eighty-five percent of the state's private schools are run by religious institutions, so public funds would go to finance religious education.

The initiative suffered an important political setback in February when Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) announced that he was opposing the voucher drive, calling it a "stone cold loser." Although his motivations were unclear, many believe Engler was worried the voucher vote would hurt the election chances of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. Bush supports vouchers, and Engler reportedly fears Michigan voters who turn out to vote against the referendum would likely support Democrat Al Gore, who opposes vouchers.

Engler's announcement rocked Michigan's political landscape. Accord­ing to the Detroit News, Betsy DeVos was so angered by Engler's decision that she promptly resigned as the state chairwoman of the Republican Party.

While the Religious Right-oriented DeVos family has offered an unwavering financial commitment to the voucher proposal in their home state, the Michigan drive unlike California is not solely the work of a wealthy fat cat.

With 92,000 parochial school students throughout the state ready to accept tuition subsidies financed by tax dollars, the Michigan Catholic hierarchy is preparing to pull out all of the stops to see that the voucher campaign succeeds.

From the very beginning, church leaders were instrumental in collecting signatures in parishes to get enough petitions for the initiative to appear on the November ballot. Michigan's Catholic bishops have already sent letters to 2 million homes around the state urging the faithful to support the referendum. The strategy between now and November also includes a series of pro-voucher church bulletins, directions to priests to deliver sermons about the issue and additional direct mail advertising.

"There is some self-interest here," Paul Long, a spokesman for the Catholic Conference, admitted to the Detroit News. "But it's not just about money. The church is interested because the parents should have the right to choose the best educational setting and the government has the moral obligation to provide that opportunity, even if it means subsidizing families."

The Michigan Catholic hierarchy spent nearly $3 million to oppose an assisted suicide referendum in 1998, and may spend nearly as much this year on vouchers. Federal tax law forbids tax-exempt religious groups to support candidates for public office, but gives wide latitude for involvement in ballot propositions.

In addition to the DeVos family and the Catholic hierarchy, Prop. 1 has also drawn endorsements from an array of public school critics, including Focus on the Family President James Dobson, former Education Secretary William Bennett, former Family Research Council President Gary Bauer, former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, former Domino's Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts and New Age guru Marianne Williams.

Curtis told Church & State that going up against this array of powerful forces can be intimidating.

What are supporters of church-state separation and public schools doing to help the election? "Besides pray," Curtis joked, "we have a number of other advantages over [our opponents], especially the organizations in Michigan and elsewhere who have endorsed our side."

The ALL Kids First coalition that Curtis works with has grown considerably as the campaign has progressed. What started with a handful of educational organizations has blossomed into 199 groups from across the country from the religion, child advocacy, education and civil rights fields, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Plans include media outreach, grassroots mobilization and other educational efforts. (To visit the coalition's website go to http://allkidsfirst.org.)

With this coalition behind the ALL Kids First campaign, Curtis has confidence when looking ahead to Election Day.

"We're going to win," Curtis said. "Why? Because we're right."