School Vouchers Fail at the Ballot Box, But School Choice Plans Abound

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - "The overwhelming defeat of private school tuition vouchers in California and Michigan is the most compelling evidence yet that parents and the public dislike and distrust the idea of public support for private schools," said Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, following the November 7 election.

The union could claim victory in defeating the initiatives, after having spent hundreds of millions of dollars to do just that. Voters rejected the idea in California, 79 to 21 percent and in Michigan, 69 to 31 percent.

Supporters of vouchers are hardly giving up, though. They say school choice is about more than ballot initiatives on vouchers.

"National Education Association President Bob Chase and other advocates of the status quo in education are simply mistaken if they believe education reformers are about to fold up their tents and go home," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform.

Reformers like Allen, the Institute of Justice, and Michigan's Mackinac Center for Public Policy are working on other plans to give parents more choice in education.

On the voucher front, while acknowledging that voter referenda may not be the most successful path to success, Matthew Berry, a staff attorney for the Institute for Justice, says legislatures and courts are still a viable route.

"Over the next few years you will have more voucher programs enacted through state legislatures, like most laws are," Berry predicted. "I do not believe [voucher ballot initiatives] will be successful if tried. I wasn't at all surprised they lost...because if you look at what happened in the past, the teachers unions are able to spend enormous amounts of money on misleading advertising and voters in referendums tend to vote 'no' if they're uncertain or scared," he said.

Legislatures are better able to sort through criticism from unions and recognize the merits of a voucher plan, according to Berry.

"We've gotten them passed in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio because there, you have people who study the issue, and it isn't about multimillion dollar advertising campaigns," said Berry. "It's just about persuading the people who study the issues that this is a good idea, so it's an environment which is more conducive to the facts coming out," he said. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but if you look at the record, we have won in state legislatures before [but] we've never won in a referendum."

The Institute for Justice is litigating two voucher cases in the courts right now, concerning the Cleveland, Ohio and the state of Florida voucher programs, respectively. The programs come to the courts by way of constitutional challenges based on the First Amendment's Establishment clause. The Cleveland case could be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court next year, following a circuit court ruling.

"The ruling [by the Supreme Court]...would be very important to the future of vouchers nationally," said Berry.

But some school choice advocates are not even thinking in terms of vouchers.

In Michigan, the governor and a prominent state think tank have charter schools and tax credits in mind.

"One thing that we're looking to do here in to raise the cap on the number of charter schools," said Susan Shafer, spokeswoman for Republican Gov. John Engler. "The governor has proposed to eliminate that allow parents to have more choice on where they send their children to school," she said.

Michigan's Mackinac Center is promoting tax credits for parents to offset the cost of a private school education.

Joe Lehman, vice president of communications for the Mackinac Center, says the future is all about tax credits. Lehman says the Mackinac Center has not promoted voucher plans because the political and state constitutional hurdles have always been too difficult to clear in Michigan.

"The lesson is that vouchers are only one form of school choice," said Lehman. "The teacher union crowd here was saying this was a defeat for school choice, but that's just hogwash," said Lehman, who pointed to existing school choice plans that include charter schools, private scholarship funds and inter-district school choice.

"But charter schools and cross-district school choice are not cutting edge anymore," said Lehman, because there are still a lot of kids on waiting lists to switch schools. "At least in Michigan, the school choice plan with the most potential for significant change is a tuition tax credit, which is vastly different from a voucher," said Lehman.

"A tax credit plan avoids many of the problems of voucher plans," because the state wouldn't be writing a check to schools some voters don't like, said Lehman. Such a plan would be similar to those proposed by President Clinton and Vice President Gore for higher education.