Voucher campaign is costliest - 11/01/00

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Wednesday, November 1, 2000



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Voucher campaign is costliest
Groups for, against Proposal 1 spent a record $19 million so far

Big donors
These are the top five donors for and against school voucher Proposal 1.
Backers
   (Total raised: $12.9 million)
   1) DeVos family: $4.75 million
   2) Catholic church: $2.1 million
   3) John Walton of Arkansas, related to Wal-Mart founder: $2 million
   4) American Education Reform Council, Milwaukee group: $500,000
   5) Sidney Jansma, Grand Rapids businessman: $470,000
Opponents
   (Total raised: $6.2 million)
   1) Michigan Education Association: $4.94 million
   2) Michigan Association of School Administrators: $191,575
   3) American Federation of Teachers: $150,000
   4) Detroit Federation of Teachers: $100,000
   5) SETSEG, school insurer: $100,000
   Source: Michigan Department of State, Bureau of Elections
By Mark Hornbeck / Detroit News Lansing Bureau

    LANSING -- The school voucher campaign has moved ahead of the Abraham-Stabenow U.S. Senate race as the most expensive political contest in Michigan history, new records indicate.
   Groups backing and fighting Proposal 1 have shelled out a record $19 million -- $12.9 million raised by proponents and $6.2 million from opponents. That's about $6 million more than the amount spent directly by candidate campaign committees on the tight Senate contest through early October.
   Millions more will be spent by Tuesday on both races.
   The lofty dollar signs in the voucher battle concern campaign finance watchdog groups, who say average citizens are being priced out of the ballot initiative process.
   "The idea that ballot proposals are a way for the citizenry to have a voice outside the Legislature is really not the case anymore in Michigan," said Karen Holcomb Merrill, executive director Common Cause-Michigan.
   But voucher advocates say the public is well-served by heightening the debate over education reform.
   "I don't think the public is ever ill-served by political speech," said Robert Labrant, vice-president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which backs Proposal 1.
   State Elections Bureau records show these battle lines in the fund-raising effort: Millionaire donors and the Catholic church on the pro side and the well-heeled Michigan Education Association on the side against school vouchers.
   Amway Corp. executive Dick DeVos, co-chair of the voucher advocacy group Kids First! Yes!, and members of his family and his wife's family have donated $4.75 million to the cause.
   The Catholic Church has pitched in $2.1 million and Wal-Mart heir John Walton, of Arkansas gave slightly more than $2 million. Walton has been involved with DeVos in a philanthropic school scholarship in past years.
   Other big donors to the pro-voucher group include:
   * Milwaukee-based American Education Reform Council, $500,000.
   * Grand Rapids businessman Sidney Jansma, finance chairman of Kids First! Yes!, $470,000.
   * Compuware, a Metro Detroit computer services company, $361,374.
   * Tom Monaghan, former Domino's Pizza CEO, $350,000.
   The Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, dwarfed other donors to the opposition group, All Kids First! The union kicked in $4.94 million, including $653,000 for legal services, brochures, computer and staff time and other indirect contributions. That's about 80 percent of the opposition war chest, and doesn't include the thousands spent by teachers' union affiliates.
   The Michigan Association of School Administrators donated $192,000, followed by the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers' union, at $150,000.
   "Most of their funding comes from those who have a vested financial self-interest in maintaining the status quo, unlike the philanthropic donors on the 'yes' side," said Greg McNeilly, spokesman for the voucher group.
   But proposal critics say their campaign is financed by educators, rather than wealthy interests.
   "Teachers definitely have a vested interest," said Laura Wotruba, spokeswoman for All Kids First! "They're on the front lines. They know what's going to help kids and they know this proposal won't help kids."
   Much of the money raised by voucher backers and foes has been spent on TV ads. The pro-voucher side has been on the airwaves for two months, while the opposition started airing commercials in early October.
   The ad war escalated in recent weeks, punctuated by charges of distortion and lying. The voucher group has sued the opposition over a spot suggesting private schools can bar handicapped pupils.
   "There's way too much money spent on this campaign," said Holcomb Merrill at Common Cause. "They just inundate voters with negative ads, making people more disenchanted with the system, so they just throw up their hands in disgust and just don't vote."
   Labrant at the Chamber of Commerce said it costs at least a couple million dollars these days just to get a ballot proposal noticed.
   "What's the magic number? Would everybody be happy if they just spent $75,000 apiece? If that were the case, nobody would have ever heard of Proposal 1," Labrant added.
   He said the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Auburn Hills, and challenger U.S. Rep. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, likely will cost more than Proposal 1 when spending by political parties and interest groups is counted.
   

You can reach Mark Hornbeck at (517) 371-3660 or at mhornbeck@detnews.com.