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Americans for Religious Liberty:

Article - School Vouchers: Voters Say No

by Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr

Regardless of how the U.S. Supreme Court rules in the Cleveland school voucher case this year, the voucher issue will continue to play a role in the political process. Just about every state legislature and Congress could see battles over proposals to drain the public treasury to support nonpublic schools’ under the guise of parental choice. And hard-pressed public schools will be caught in the crossfire as they try to maintain adequate levels of funding to educate 90% of this country’s children.

IN THE 2000 ELECTIONS voters in two large and important states, California and Michigan, overwhelmingly rejected voucher schemes in statewide referenda. These voters handed advocates of public aid to private and parochial schools their 23rd and 24th defeats in 25 elections held in 14 states since 1966.

The California vote was 71% to 29% against Proposition 38, an elaborate voucher proposal that would have cost at least $2.4 billion and would have required the state to give a $4,000 annual voucher to any parent, rich or poor, to send a child to a private school. No accountability for the expenditures and carte blanche for private school religious and gender discrimination were parts of the plan. Californians of every demographic group and regional location voted against the plan, including 66% of Catholic voters. Even rural, white “interior California” counties that voted heavily for George W. Bush for president opposed the initiative.

In Michigan 68% of voters, including 64% of Catholics, opposed a similar though more modest voucher plan. The Michigan scheme, which received $2 million in contributions from Catholic dioceses and pulpit support, was soundly thrashed at the polls. National conservative groups had targeted Michigan with generous funding and publicity. The proposal failed in every demographic group, receiving limited support from black inner-city Detroit and much lower than expected support from Dutch Reformed Republican voters in the rural countryside.

These most recent electoral defeats for vouchers point up a neglected aspect of the decades-long debate. The sparsely-reported California and Michigan referenda were actually the third time voters in the two states had rejected public aid to private schools. And they were not alone.

This issue has been placed before the electorate 25 times since 1966, and the voters have rejected it 24 times. Voters in 14 states and the District of Columbia have considered variants of voucher/tax credit schemes, and, with the single exception of South Dakota, they have rejected all of them. In these 25 elections, 68% of voters rejected public support for private and religious schools.

The most common type of aid measure was the proposal to weaken state constitutions to allow subsequent legislatures to pass various aid proposals. Constitutional changes were rejected by voters in New York (1967), Oregon (1972), Washington (1975), Alaska (1976), and Massachusetts (1986). The provision of auxiliary services - often including textbooks, transportation, and other incidentals - was turned down by voters in Maryland (1974), Missouri (1976), and Massachusetts (1982). Vouchers were rejected in Maryland (1972), Michigan (1978), Colorado (1992), California (1993), Washington (1996), California (2000) and Michigan (2000). Bus transportation was rejected by voters in Nebraska (1966) and Idaho (1972). Voters in the District of Columbia (1981), Utah (1988), Oregon (1990), and Colorado (1998) turned down tuition tax credits. Tuition reimbursement for parochial schools was rejected by Nebraska voters in 1970. The provision of textbooks was rejected by California voters in 1982 but approved by South Dakotans in 1986.

In 1970 voters in Michigan, opposed to constant attempted raids on the state treasury by private and parochial school lobbies, initiated and approved an amendment to the state constitution banning all forms of tax aid to nonpublic education.

Advocates of tax aid or support for sectarian and other nonpublic schools often claim wide support for their point of view. Their claims, however, are usually based on poorly designed poll questions. While permitting families greater choice among public schools is at least a superficially popular idea, mixing together public school choice and tax support for nonpublic schools in a single poll question to be answered “yes” or “no” is sure to produce ambiguous if not meaningless results. However, when the issue is placed concretely before a large group of voters, with advocates and opponents of the proposed changes engaging the body politic, a meaningful test of public opinion is possible.

A study of the state referenda reveals a wide range of opposition to vouchers and other forms of parochial and private school aid that transcends income, education, place of residence, ethnicity, and, to some extent, religion. In the earliest referenda (1966-80), opposition was consistently high in rural areas, in small towns, and in centers of academic influence. Income and education levels did not play a strong defining role in the vote. African Americans were strongly opposed to these proposals, as were Jewish voters and most Protestants, except the Dutch ancestry Reformed Church members in Michigan. Catholics tended to favor these measures, but by lower margins than might have been anticipated. And in New York in 1967, a majority of Catholic voters joined then-Sen. Robert Kennedy in opposing a constitutional change that would have opened the doors to state aid to nonpublic schools. Catholic support was greatest in Nebraska, Maryland, and Missouri.

Beginning in Massachusetts in 1986 a discernible shift in Catholic voter sentiment with regard to nonpublic school aid was evident. Question 2 on the Bay State ballot would have removed elementary and secondary schools from the list of nonpublic institutions barred from receiving public aid” and would have allowed public money, property, loans, and credit to be used for founding, maintaining, and aiding those schools. Additional forms of financial aid, materials, and services could be provided to nonpublic schools.

By a resounding margin of 69.7% to 30.3%, Massachusetts voters said no. Turnout was heavy, as 1,154,069 voted no, and 502,170 voted yes. Every county in this heavily Catholic state rejected the scheme, including 65% in Portuguese-flavored Bristol County, 63% in Boston, 67% in the Berkshires, and 70% in Worcester. (Protestant and Jewish voters were also opposed - 78% to 80% -- but that was expected.) Overwhelmingly, Catholic towns such as North Adams, Fall River, and New Bedford rejected the proposed constitutional change. Even towns with high parochial school enrollments (for example, Chicopee and Holyoke) said no. The strongly Catholic town of Gloucester (noted for its fishing boats and Portuguese churches) turned in 5,610 no votes to 1,829 yes votes.

Republican politicians seeking to use vouchers and related schemes as wedge issues to move Catholic voters to their party could not have chosen a less suitable issue.

In 1988 voters in staunchly conservative and Republican Utah rejected by 70% to 30% a state constitutional amendment that would have authorized tuition reimbursement tax credits.

By a 67% to 33% margin, Oregonians in 1990 turned down a proposed tuition tax credit program that would have aided private and religious schools and home-schooled students. The proposal would have cost taxpayers an initial $60 million to $100 million per year. A majority of voters in every region, from Portland and its suburbs to the coastal areas and the conservative eastern rural areas, said no. Every demographic group registered a majority in opposition.

Three years later, Californians of all races, colors, creeds, backgrounds, and political philosophies handed voucher advocates a humiliating defeat by turning down Proposition 174 by nearly 70% to 30%. All 58 counties in the state rejected the proposal. Voter opposition was so deep that the plan could not muster 40% support in a single county. Opposition ranged from nearly 80% in liberal San Francisco to 61% in conservative Orange County.

In 1996 voters in Washington State decisively trounced a voucher initiative placed on the ballot by multimillionaire Ron Taber, who also lost his race for state school superintendent. Initiative 173 was defeated (64.5% to 35.5%). It would have provided public funding for sectarian and other nonpublic schools at about $3,400 per student per year and would have allowed the private schools to charge add-on tuition.

On Election Day 1998, Colorado voters rejected a complicated tuition tax credit/voucher scheme to provide state funds to private and parochial schools, which educate 6% of Colorado students. (The comparable national figure is nearly 11%.) Amendment 17, a proposed amendment to the state constitution, would have provided state income tax credits or, for individuals with little or no tax liability, a tuition grant (a refundable tax credit) worth about $2,500 per student per year. A vaguely defined Educational Opportunity Fund would have been created to distribute the funds to parents or guardians who transferred their children from low-performing public schools.

The plan resembled the school voucher proposal rejected by Colorado voters in 1992. There is in essence little difference between tuition tax credits and vouchers, as the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1973 in Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist (413 U.S. 756). Every geographic region of the state and every type of voting area (city, suburb, small town, rural) cast majorities against Amendment 17.

Then, as we have seen, California and Michigan voters rejected vouchers overwhelmingly in 2000. Over three decades, when given the opportunity to express themselves on this broad public policy initiative, voters have repeatedly declined to support such proposals. It makes little sense for state and national legislators to continue to press for programs that the American people do not want. Lawmakers at the ederal and state levels would be well advised to direct their attention to the needs of the public schools, which nearly 90% of all students attend.

Americans for Religious Liberty - P.O.Box 6656 - Silver Spring, MD 20916
Telephone: 301-460-1111 - Email: arlinc@verizon.net