Causing a split on one of his party's signature issues, Republican Governor John Engler recently expressed skepticism toward a school choice proposal that would remove the state's 29-year-old ban on K-12 tuition vouchers and tax credits.
Speaking at the Michigan Republican Mackinac Island Leadership Conference on September 18, the governor- who has shown general support for school choice in the past- characterized the Kids First! Yes! school voucher proposal as a losing issue for Republicans.
"The poll shows the voucher proposal already defeated," said Engler. "It has no hope." The governor also said he would "not endorse [the proposal] or support it."
His reference was to a Detroit News poll showing only 47 percent would vote for the proposal. He stated that the initiative has failed to attract majority support, dooming it to defeat at the ballot box next year.
Engler is a key supporter of U. S. Senator Spencer Abraham, who is shown by another Detroit News poll as drawing just 44 percent voter support against 2000 challenger U. S. Representative Debbie Stabenow. Abraham also has stated concern about the voucher proposal.
Kids First! Yes! is a coalition of school choice advocates that is seeking 302,711 citizen signatures to place its voucher plan on the November 2000 ballot for voter consideration. The plan would repeal the 1970 amendment to the state constitution that bans K-12 vouchers and tax credits and would give state-funded tuition vouchers to parents in school districts that fail to graduate two-thirds of their students.
Amway President Dick DeVos, co-chairman of Kids First! Yes!, dismissed Engler's statements, pledging to continue pushing for greater parental choice in education. "Every year that we delay, we're sending more and more kids into a system that's not performing the way it should," DeVos said.
Some Democrats quickly pronounced the disagreement as a sign of weakness within the GOP. "They're split already," said Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer. "It's going to have a ripple effect. People will now shy away from giving money and signing petitions."
Although the Kids First! Yes! plan has not yet earned a spot on the 2000 ballot, it already has attracted serious opposition. Groups lining up against it include Michigan's school employee labor unions, the NAACP, and the ACLU.
DeVos noted the irony of Engler's skepticism of the plan in light of these groups' opposition to it. "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," he said.
Some speculate that Engler's opposition stems from political strategy: He fears the voucher measure would attract Democrats and union members to the polls in an effort to defeat it.
High Democratic turnout could hurt Republican incumbents, including Abraham, in an election that also will determine which party has the power to establish Michigan's electoral districts for the next ten years.
Engler deflected this criticism, saying, "I don't think in a presidential election year in particular . . . you're going to see people saying there's a presidential election, there's a U. S. Senate election, I was going to stay home, but here's vouchers, now I'm going to vote," he said.
Despite the governor's position, the Republican Issues Committee voted unanimously in favor of the Kids First! Yes! proposal. The Republican Central Committee will discuss the issue in November.
In the meantime, DeVos remains undeterred by the political controversy surrounding the plan. "I just can't sit by and say the politics aren't good enough to pursue vouchers on a bipartisan basis," he said. "This is about kids."