By DEE-ANN DURBIN
The Associated Press
6/27/02 3:22 PM

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Despite the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Thursday allowing publicly funded vouchers for religious schools, many observers doubt that Michigan's constitutional ban on vouchers will be overturned anytime soon.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said a Cleveland voucher program doesn't put the government in the unconstitutional position of sponsoring religious indoctrination even though more than 95 percent of the vouchers are used for religious schooling.

Two years ago, Michigan voters rejected a proposal that would have required poorly performing school districts to offer financial vouchers for students to use at private and parochial schools. It also would have cleared the way for local elections or school board decisions to bring vouchers to any school district in the state.

The Michigan constitution bans spending public money directly or indirectly on private schools. The ban was added to the constitution in 1970 by voters, who would have to approve any measure that would change it. In 2000, they defeated the voucher proposal 69 percent to 31 percent.

State Superintendent Tom Watkins expressed frustration with Thursday's ruling. He said there is no conclusive evidence that competition from vouchers improves public school performance. Instead, vouchers drain money away from the schools that need it most, he said.

"We need to direct our efforts toward supporting our neighborhood public schools, not dragging them down with dangerous schemes that only harm the learning environment," he said.

Many voucher supporters disagree, but know it will be tough to change voters' minds. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based think tank that supports vouchers, said a poll conducted before the Supreme Court decision indicates half of Michigan's voters remain cool toward vouchers.

Fifty percent of respondents in the June 19-25 poll conducted by Lansing-based EPIC/MRA said they would oppose vouchers in Michigan, while 43 percent said they would support them. Seven percent were undecided. The poll questioned 600 likely voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Mackinac Center Executive Vice President Joseph Lehman said voters were more likely to support tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools. The poll showed 67 percent favor tax credits, 22 percent oppose them and 11 percent are undecided.

"With a voucher, everybody knows some of their tax money is going to pay for the education of someone else's kid, maybe at a school they don't approve of," Lehman said. "With a tax credit, you can keep your own money and use it for a school that you approve of."

Lehman added that the Mackinac Center will be supporting a tax credit proposal soon, since "the most politically viable option for Michigan appears to be tax credits."

Other voucher supporters said they hope the Supreme Court decision sways public opinion in Michigan.

"Those opposed to parental choice have had their day in court," said Betsy DeVos, a former state Republican Party chief who helped lead the voucher drive in 2000 and now heads a group called Choices for Children.

"Now it is time for us to move forward with empowering all parents with the ability to provide their children with universal access to high-quality education," she said.

The Michigan Catholic Conference also praised the Supreme Court's decision, calling it a victory for children.

"The state is not establishing religion. It is simply living up to its obligation to provide the means to an education to its citizenry," said Cardinal Adam Maida, archbishop of Detroit.

Michigan Education Association spokeswoman Karen Schulz said the MEA was disappointed with the decision, but doesn't think Michigan's constitutional ban on spending public money on private schools is in danger of being changed.

"Our feeling is not that voters are suddenly going to embrace vouchers," said Schulz, speaking for the state's largest teacher union.

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On the Net:

Choices for Children, http://www.choicesforchildren.org

Michigan Education Association, http://www.mea.org

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