Tough Choice

Can school choice win in Michigan? Should it?


When Michigan's Gov. John Engler came out swinging against a state school-choice ballot initiative last year, he attracted national attention. Here was a reform-minded Republican bucking one of his party's few meaningful public-policy ideas. For 10 years, Engler has cut taxes, slashed welfare, and held state spending in check. Private-school choice seems a natural addition to this portfolio, and most observers assumed that the governor would support the school-choice referendum, which would allow some students at failing schools to use tax dollars to pay for private schools. Last September, however, Engler said that because of unfavorable polls, school choice in Michigan "has no hope." Since then he has actually worked to undermine the measure.

Engler's actions were an early sign that school choice could play a major role in this year's presidential election. Vice President Al Gore and Bill Bradley spent much of the Democratic primary season bickering over which of them hated school choice more. George W. Bush and John McCain also tussled with the issue. Bush has proposed awarding $1,500 vouchers to kids in the country's worst schools; McCain is likewise a school-choice booster, though he never outlined a specific plan. In the one non-presidential race that threatens to eclipse all others–Rudy vs. Hillary in New York–school choice is perhaps the candidates' sharpest policy difference. Giuliani has clamored on behalf of school choice for years, while the First Lady, with her teacher-union talking points in hand, apparently believes it's part of a vast conspiracy to destroy public education.

Every election cycle has its themes–the recession in 1992, the Clintons' health-care takeover in 1994, protecting federal entitlements in 1996, a stained blue dress in 1998. School choice has never risen to that level, even though the idea has been around for decades. Milton Friedman proposed that the government pay for education, but not dictate exactly where children receive their schooling, in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom. That provocative suggestion, however, didn't attract much notice outside right-wing cliques until the late 1980s.

Wisconsin passed a school-choice law limited to Milwaukee in 1990, Ohio adopted a program for Cleveland in 1995, and Florida approved a statewide plan last year (struck down in March by a state court). Otherwise, school choice has flopped politically. Congress has essentially ignored the matter, except to pass school choice for kids in the District of Columbia. President Clinton vetoed it. School choice seemed ready for prime time for most of the 1990s, but it hasn't yet gotten a national airing.

Michigan could start to change that. In January, supporters of the "Kids First! Yes!" initiative announced that they had gathered well beyond the nearly 303,000 signatures needed to put a question on the November ballot. The effort is also well funded–it raised more than $1 million in 1999 and hopes to bring in $5 million this year. The teacher unions will no doubt pour cash into their own campaign, but $5 million at least guarantees a pro-school choice message will be heard.

Much of the measure's financial muscle comes from people tied to Amway, which is based near Grand Rapids. Co-founder Richard DeVos and his wife Helen each gave $150,000 to the effort. Amway President Dick DeVos (their son) contributed $50,000. Elsa Prince, the mother of Dick's wife Betsy, sent in $200,000. There's heavy Catholic backing as well. The Detroit archdiocese put in $100,000, the Michigan Catholic Conference provided $25,000, and Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monahan, who plans to spend the rest of his life donating his fortune to Catholic causes, ponied up $100,000.

Michigan, as always, promises to be a vital national electoral battleground. Presidential candidates descending on the Wolverine State will be asked to announce their positions on the state's initiative. The next commander-in-chief might claim a school-choice mandate–either to promote it or to suppress it on the federal level. The coming battle in Michigan could well be a turning point for the whole movement.

That may not be good news. There is a strong chance the initiative will lose. But even if it passes, supporters could find themselves wondering why they fought so hard for so little.

Engler has a point about the politics. The school-choice polls in Michigan don't look promising. A Detroit News survey in September had the initiative leading 47 percent to 43 percent. Another one in January showed some improvement; school choice was ahead 53 percent to 23 percent, with 24 percent undecided. This is an uptick, but a weak showing overall. Support for ballot initiatives typically erodes over time. Their popularity tends to peak early, and then opponents identify particular problems with the way they are written. Those problems get voters thinking that while they may like the idea of an initiative in general, they may not like this particular proposal. To pass, initiatives generally need to begin a campaign with support in the 60 percent to 70 percent range. The most recent Detroit News poll, however, found those in favor of school choice dropping to just 42 percent after hearing a few arguments against the initiative–i.e., the sorts of things they'll hear from teacher-union ads in the fall.

A loss on school choice could affect other races, and perhaps in ways that school-choice supporters may not like. Although choice typically polls well across parties, almost all the muscle for it in Michigan comes from Republicans. (Indeed, that's why Engler's position is so newsworthy.) A Lansing polling firm has said that the initiative is likely to increase Republican voter turnout by 5 percent and Democratic turnout by 10 percent. It's likely that some of these Democrats–especially urban blacks, who in many ways have the most to gain from school choice–will vote in favor of the initiative. But that's far from certain.

More important to Engler's calculus, they probably won't go for a straight GOP ticket. Their presence would hurt Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham, who faces one of the toughest re-election races in the country against Democratic Rep. Debbie Stabenow. His loss would mean one less vote in the Senate for everything from a federal school-choice plan to education-savings accounts. And, on the eve of congressional redistricting, the GOP holds the governorship and state Senate, but maintains only a narrow lead in the state House of Representatives. A disastrous school-choice outing could cost a state Senate seat and make it impossible to redistrict House Minority Whip David Bonior out of office.

If the presidential race is close, too, a few votes in Michigan could make a big difference, sending 18 electoral votes toward Al Gore, a presidential candidate who is resolutely anti-school choice on every level except the personal (Gore's children have all attended exclusive private schools).

Then there's the problem with winning. The initiative provides a voucher worth about $3,100–half of per-student public-school expenditures–to children in school districts that graduate fewer than two-thirds of their students. The money is certainly enough to cover all or most of tuition costs at most private schools. But the great majority of school districts graduate more than two-thirds of their students. Something like 30 of Michigan's 560 school districts would be covered. And Detroit–the grand prize of state school reform–might not be touched at all. Initiative supporters say that the Detroit district would have to allow choice, but others are less sure. The city's most recent reported graduation rate is 83 percent, although this is currently under review by the state education department. The initiative does allow other school districts to adopt choice following a vote of the school board or voters, but these small-scale local efforts would likely find themselves overwhelmed by the vast resources of the teacher unions.

The initiative language itself is problematic. It would require that the legislature "provide for regular testing of the knowledge in academic subjects" for all teachers in schools accepting vouchers. Here is the Achilles heel of the whole voucher effort, in Michigan and elsewhere: the prospect that new regulations will interfere with how private schools conduct themselves. One of the strengths of private schools, of course, is that they do not have to abide by the same rules as their public counterparts. If vouchers introduce new regulations–and we're not talking fire codes here–private schools begin to become quasi-public. Rather than leading to a deregulation of public schools, choice could lead to the regulation of private ones. This is one reason why the Association of Independent Michigan Schools hasn't endorsed the initiative.

To be sure, teacher testing is a long way from making nuns at Catholic schools hand out condoms, but libertarians know slippery slopes when they see them. Government control almost always follows government money. "We wouldn't want to open that door a crack," Ken Seward, head of Birmingham's prestigious Roeper School, told the Detroit Free Press in March.

Perhaps most important, it's not as if school reform is dead in Michigan, even without private-school choice. Hard-core choice advocates complain that Engler never has been much of a friend, telling activists with each new election cycle that the timing for school choice just isn't right. But, in fact, Engler has dramatically expanded school choice in Michigan–public school choice. Thanks largely to him, students can move freely within districts and even attend schools in adjoining ones. There are some 170 charter schools now open for business, and they enroll about 50,000 kids. Engler is currently working to create more, and the only thing stopping him is a handful of dissident Republicans who have joined a unified Democratic front in opposing this variety of school choice. It could be argued that spending a portion of the money earmarked for the initiative to defeat these politicians might do more than a quixotic referendum to expand parent and student options or even offering private scholarships to poor kids as an act of philanthropy.

It's tempting to support the Michigan drive simply because of the people who oppose it. Last September, children at an elementary school in Rochester Hills were given anti-school choice flyers to take home to their parents. The flyers tendentiously labeled school choice a racist plot "to avoid desegregation" (in the 1950s) and even took a shot at Milton Friedman, whom they weirdly described as "best known to the world as the former economics advisor to Augusto Pinochet, the fascist dictator of Chile." Forget the Nobel Prize; meet Milton Friedman, crypto-Nazi.

But that really isn't good enough. California's 1993 school choice initiative, which lost by a 2-to-1 margin, saw ordinary Republican voters, along with virtually everyone else except for inner-city residents of all races, opposing the measure for an obvious reason: They were basically satisfied with their schools. Surveys show that parents tend to think other people's schools are a mess, but that the ones their kids attend are okay.

Opponents of the California initiative ran a "conservative" campaign against it, raising budgetary concerns, suggesting there was no problem to fix, and even hiring Republican operatives to craft these messages. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson came out against the proposition fairly late in the campaign; the biggest difference in Michigan may be that Engler has come out early. In March, he teamed up with state Democrats to pass a budget bill that warns public schools may lose some funding if voters approve the school-choice initiative. That's a gift for the teacher unions' fall campaign.

Engler makes a final point worth considering: It's still far from certain the Supreme Court will uphold school choice. Cleveland and Florida's programs are currently in litigation, and one of them will probably wind up before the Court in the next two years or so. Given the Court's current composition, odds are that the program will be upheld. But why should Michigan lay out $5 million now, as opposed to a couple of years from now, when the question of constitutionality is more settled? In fact, there may be a new justice on the court by then, appointed by President Gore. Another reason–and perhaps a decisive one–for Engler to make sure Michigan winds up in the GOP column in November. School choice just may be too important to run on this year.

Contributing Editor John J. Miller (millerjj@aol.com) is a political reporter for National Review.