Ralph Neas: Voters Hand Officials a Mandate on Education

While the 2000 presidential campaign season ended as it began, in uncertainty and confusion, in one area the voters' preference couldn't have been clearer. In California, Michigan, Colorado, Oregon, Oklahoma, Washington, Arizona, Virginia, and South Carolina, voters overwhelmingly sent a message that politicians should heed. Those voters said they are committed to strong public schools and will accept no substitutes and no excuses.

In Michigan and California, even high-stakes, high-dollar campaigns couldn't persuade voters that private school vouchers are the answer to troubled public schools. Both states turned down voucher proposals decisively, with 71% of Californians and 69% of Michiganders just saying "no."

The outcomes in Michigan and California are consistent with an unbroken trend of public disdain for the idea of diverting resources from public to private schools. Since 1990, such proposals have gone before the voters six times - and six times the voters have turned them down approximately two to one. In Colorado, Washington, Michigan, and California (twice), voters have given vouchers their stamp of disapproval. Oregon voters turned down a tuition tax credit proposal that, like vouchers, would have subsidized private schools at the expense of public ones.

The story has been virtually the same in the state legislatures, with vouchers proposed and defeated 26 times in the past two years. A few especially determined legislators have managed to push through voucher programs by packaging them with other "must pass" legislation. In Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida - the only states with voucher programs in place - vouchers were never passed on their own as free-standing proposals.

The clamor for private school vouchers is coming not from the people, but from a handful of far right and anti-public school advocates and entrepreneurs who stand to gain from the public money they are trying to divert to private and religious schools. In Michigan and California, not a single county voted for vouchers - in fact only one gave the proposal more than 40 percent of the vote.

Among Michigan and California voters, however, perhaps the most damning repudiation came from the very people whom voucher advocates claim to want to help: poor, mostly minority, inner city residents. Among African Americans, the vote against vouchers was 68% in California and 77% in Michigan. Fully 77% of California Latinos opposed vouchers. Every income group voted against vouchers - poor, rich, and in-between Californians and Michiganders decisively said "no thanks."

Even Catholics, whose church schools are in prime position to benefit directly from vouchers, voted overwhelmingly against them, 69% in California and 64% in Michigan.

Voters turning down vouchers again, even in the face of a well-financed, high-profile media campaign to sell them on the idea, bears noting. But election 2000 voters said far more than just "no, no, no." They also said "yes" to ballot measures designed to increase public school funding or to at least make it easier to increase funding.

The mechanisms the voters approved differed, but the bottom line was the same around the country: more support for public schools. Here's what they did:

Californians adopted Proposition 39, which makes it easier for localities to approve school construction bonds by reducing the majority required from two-thirds to 55 percent.
Colorado voters adopted Amendment 23, requiring the legislature to increase public school spending by at least one percentage point over the inflation rate for the next 10 years.
Measure 1, approved two to one by Oregon voters, says the legislature must provide sufficient funding to enable the schools to meet state education quality standards.
Washington state voters approved measures to redirect funding into the public schools from two sources: first, any annual property tax surplus and previously unearmarked lottery proceeds.
Arizona votes opted to raise their state's sales and use tax by .6 of a cent in order to pay for smaller classes, building improvements, more school days, and teacher raises. (To ease the effects on the poor, the Arizona's proposition also includes a low-income household tax credit.)
Meanwhile, Virginia and South Carolina approved measures allocating lottery funds for public schools and college scholarships.
On November 7, voters sent elected officials and policymakers a two-part signal as clear as a neon sign. Part one: Forget about vouchers and other schemes that drain a lot of money out of the public schools and move a few kids around. Part two: Let's put our money where most of our children are and where their future lies - in the public schools.

Ralph G. Neas is president of People For the American Way Foundation, a 300,000 member civil rights and civil liberties organization.

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To read the PFAW edit memo on the voucher losses in Michigan and California, click here.

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