A school voucher proposal has moved one step closer to appearing on Michigan's November ballot.
On Feb. 24, Kids First! Yes!, the coalition backing the proposal, filed nearly 460,000 petition signatures with the Secretary of State's elections division. The group needs 302,711 valid signatures, as well as the approval of the Board of State Canvassers, to place the issue before voters in the fall.
The group displayed the petitions during a rally at Colin Powell Academy, a Detroit charter school, before filing them with the state.
"We've been in high gear for several months now, collecting signatures," says Jeff Timmer, former campaign manager for Kids First! Yes! "Now we'll be discussing the issue, raising public awareness, and debating the issue at several public forums."
Meanwhile, Gov. John Engler, who opposes the Kids First! Yes! proposal, has endorsed legislation to cut per-pupil spending from districts that automatically qualify for the voucher program, should it pass. The legislation enjoys support from Senate Republicans, who helped turn aside repeated amendments that would have nullified it.
"It's hard to speculate why the governor would put the voters in the situation of extortion," Greg McNeilly, communications specialist for Kids First! Yes!, told the Detroit Free Press. McNeilly suggests that Engler is providing voters with a financial incentive to defeat the proposal in November.
Officials from the governor's office disputed this characterization of Engler's plan, stating that the governor simply is suggesting a way to pay for vouchers if voters approve them.
"We're not playing politics," Engler spokesman John Truscott told the Free Press. "We're just planning in a prudent, appropriate way."
State officials estimate that the voucher program would cost $160 million in the first and most expensive year, but Kids First! Yes! insists that the cost would range from $60 million to $100 million. The Senate Fiscal Agency analysis estimates the cost to the state to be around $80 million.
Currently, there is an education budget surplus of more than $500 million that is expected to grow to more than $670 million in the next year. Kids First! Yes! says any increased costs to the state caused by the voucher plan could easily be balanced by this surplus.
The Kids First! Yes! initiative seeks to amend the state constitution to allow state aid indirectly to support tuition at nongovernment schools. A 1970 amendment to the state constitution currently prohibits the state from providing direct or indirect aid to students through vouchers or tuition tax credits. The amendment would retain the prohibition on direct aid to private schools.
Under the proposal, parents in school districts that fail to graduate at least two-thirds of their students would receive vouchers to pay for tuition at private or parochial schools. Parents in other districts could vote to join the voucher program.
The program would grant vouchers worth about $3,150 and guarantee that public schools receive per-pupil funding at least equivalent to the 2000-01 school year.
The plan also would require competency testing for teachers in public schools and in private schools that accept vouchers.