Vouchers Spark Controversy, Make Strange Bedfellows

Republicans, Democrats Both Split on Kids First! Yes! Ballot Proposal

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Some Republicans, including Governor John Engler, oppose the Kids First! Yes! voucher proposal embraced by many civil rights leaders who traditionally join anti-voucher labor unions in voting Democratic.

November 2000 is many months away, but a proposed school voucher ballot initiative is already causing controversy and spawning unusual political alliances.

The Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB), a lobbying and advisory organization, has encouraged several local school boards to pass resolutions against the Kids First! Yes! voucher proposal, prompting charges of impropriety.

"I'd be very wary of using a public school to promote a political agenda," Matt Latimer, communications director of Kids First! Yes!, told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. "That is very questionable, at best."

According to All Kids First!, a coalition of groups that opposes vouchers, several school boards have approved formal resolutions opposing the voucher plan, including Bloomfield Hills, Livonia, and Monroe. The Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency has also adopted a similar resolution.

"I would suspect you will see schools all over the state doing this," Greg Williams, president of the Traverse City School Board, told the Record-Eagle. The Traverse City Board also has adopted such a resolution.

"It is clear that this proposal will divert scarce resources from public schools while it subsidizes private and religious schools which are not subject to any oversight from any elected officials," a model resolution drafted by MASB states in part.

The proposal also has opened rifts within the Michigan Republican Party, whose candidates generally have been more supportive of vouchers.

Republican Governor John Engler is at odds with Amway President Dick DeVos, co-chair of Kids First! Yes! and husband of former state GOP chair Betsy DeVos.

Engler, who has announced his opposition to the voucher proposal, asked the Michigan Republican State Committee to delay a vote that could endorse the proposal. The committee honored Engler's request.

However, a state GOP subcommittee already has endorsed the proposal by a unanimous vote.

Engler appointed a special committee to study the issue and make a recommendation. He asked the Republican State Committee to postpone any vote until after the special committee completes its work.

"Even among those who advocate school vouchers, there is disagreement on whether or not the specifics of the Kids First! Yes! ballot initiative is the correct strategy," Engler wrote to the State Committee.

Betsy DeVos responded,"There is nothing productive gained by this committee taking a vote that would embarrass our governor."

Dick DeVos has publicly criticized Engler for not supporting the initiative.

"To many of John Engler's supporters it would be frightening if he was arm in arm with the [Michigan Education Association] against the voucher effort," DeVos said.

Engler's opposition to the proposal has him aligned with a number of organizations which traditionally oppose his positions. Among these groups are the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, People for the American Way, the Detroit Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Michigan Education Association.

Meanwhile, Kids First! Yes! has gained support from many traditionally Democratic constituencies, including inner-city pastors and civil rights leaders.

If the proposal wins in November 2000, it would repeal the state constitutional ban upon indirect aid to parents for tuition at private and parochial schools. Voters in Michigan approved a prohibition on both direct and indirect aid in 1970.