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
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,
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
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
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.