By William Bole
American News Service, October 12, 2000
(ANS) -- Carol Hogan would seem an obvious backer of Proposition 38, a voter initiative in California that would create the nation's largest school-voucher program. She is the spokeswoman for the California Catholic Conference, a church organization that wholeheartedly supports the concept of school vouchers, which would funnel public education funding to Catholic and other private schools.
But Hogan and her bosses, the bishops, are lying low in the fight over the ballot initiative. That's partly because the referendum, as they see it, would disproportionately help affluent families and bypass many poor children. But it's also because of serious qualms about the whole process of ballot initiatives.
"It's not a good way to make laws," said Hogan, referring to the lack of deliberative mechanisms and checks and balances in the initiative process. She also pointed to the public relations firms that collect petition signatures for about a dollar a head. "It's just become huge business in California," Hogan said.
On Election Day, California voters will cast ballots on vouchers and seven other propositions, including an initiative that would make it easier to authorize bonds for school construction. California is best known for its battles over ballot initiatives, but this year Oregon is leading the pack, with 26 measures to be decided by voters.
Nationwide, approximately 180 ballot measures are heading to a vote in 38 states, according to a report by the Initiative and Referendum Institute in Washington, D.C., which monitors the measures and promotes the process. About 70 of these were placed on ballots through the voter initiative process, and the others were offered by legislatures. (About two dozen of the 38 states have a citizen-initiated ballot process.)
This fall, there are a record number of education initiatives - 11 - with most of the national interest surrounding school-choice contests in Michigan as well as California.
Though the ballot initiative process remains popular among voters, some people think it's running amok. The biggest worries are the proliferating numbers of measures appearing and the money flowing into initiative campaigns. In California, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Timothy Draper, principal backer of Proposition 38, has vowed to spend whatever it takes to get it passed. He initially pledged $20 million, and evidently that's not enough -- the voucher initiative is behind in the polls. It would give parents $4,000 per child for tuition in private schools.
"It's become almost a mark of prestige for the new millionaires in Silicon Valley to have an initiative that carries their name," said David S. Broder, a Washington Post columnist and author of "Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money" (published earlier this year by Harcourt). "They ran start-up companies. Now they're running start-up initiative campaigns, where their entrepreneurship gets full rein."
Reports this year indicate that the initiative process is "bigger in both quantity and expense," he said, adding that the trend underlines his thesis that ballot initiatives have become an alternative form of government in America. In "Democracy Derailed," Broder writes the process has "given the United States something that seems unthinkable -- not a government of laws but laws without government."
Though populists and progressive reformers pioneered ballot initiatives at the beginning of the 20th century, the modern movement dates to 1978 in California. That's when voters there overwhelmingly approved Proposition 13, which heralded an era of taxpayer revolts. Since then, voters in different states have used the initiative process to end affirmative action, ban billboards, boost the minimum wage, expand casino gambling and permit the use of marijuana for medical reasons, among other successful initiatives noted by Broder.
Advocates see ballot initiatives as the purest form of democracy, giving citizens a safety valve when legislatures refuse to carry out their will. One of the purists is Daniel B. Jeffs, who heads The Direct Democracy Center, an advocacy group in Apple Valley, Calif. But even he worries about the way the initiative process has evolved, or devolved, in the past two decades. Jeffs puts most of the blame on liberal-oriented special interests such as teachers' unions -- which defeated a 1993 voucher initiative in California -- as well as government.
He complains that it is easier for legislatures to place proposals on the ballot than it is for citizens to do so. The lawmakers simply vote, whereas voters have to gather signatures that generally cost ballot-initiative proponents about a dollar each to collect.
"In California, it takes about a million signatures or a million dollars," Jeffs noted, and that is just to qualify to get on the ballot.
He also points a finger at personal crusaders such as Hollywood director Rob Reiner, who campaigned successfully in 1998 for the tobacco-tax-raising Proposition 10. At the same time, Jeffs gives thumbs up to the personal crusade of Draper, the millionaire behind the voucher proposal.
He said he understands why voters may be "apathetic, cynical and confused by the smoke from the battle" of television advertising dollars between Draper and teachers unions opposed to Proposition 38. But Jeffs added, "The public school system won't change unless it's forced to change. And the only tools available are voter initiatives and referendums."
Draper doesn't fit the usual profile of a special-interest advocate. Unlike insurance companies that have successfully pushed for limits on the right to sue them for mishandling of claims, for example, Draper doesn't stand to gain financially from the measure. But Proposition 38 does illustrate how one person with deep pockets can dominate an initiative campaign.
One telling fact is that the natural allies of vouchers, notably the Catholic Church, are keeping to the sidelines. "He (Draper) didn't invite anyone to the table for a discussion of his proposal," said Robert Teegarden, an education specialist with the California Catholic Conference, based in Sacramento. Draper was able to craft the initiative and finance signature collection without tapping the traditional constituencies that favor school vouchers.
The upshot is a proposal that runs counter to the intuition of many analysts and even supporters of vouchers. Several cities have used vouchers or scholarships to help low-income students pay for private schools in low-performing public school districts. "Where they've had success is where they've targeted the poor," said Teegarden, echoing some independent studies.
Proposition 38, however, would give vouchers to all of the state's 6.6 million schoolchildren to use in private schools. Some experts have concluded that the benefits would accrue primarily to affluent families whose children already attend these schools. That is partly because private schools in California report only about 32,000 vacant slots, according to a joint academic study released in September by Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. (The researchers found that targeted voucher programs elsewhere have boosted test scores of low-income black students in elementary schools.)
After studying the proposition, California's Catholic leaders decided it did not fulfill a core principle known in the church's social teaching as the "preferential option for the poor," which says government's first responsibility is to help the needy and vulnerable, according to Teegarden. Beyond that, he said his organization is leery of ballot initiatives in general. "Initiative law is a hard way to run a railroad. It's just a flawed process, because it's driven by folks with money and by special interests," he said.
However, Teegarden's counterpart in Michigan has a drastically different take on ballot initiatives, only partly because he's not in California.
"I guess we're not as jaded as they are out there, because we haven't had so many ballot drives and as much big money," said Brian Broderick, who handles education issues for the Michigan Catholic Conference, which represents the state's Catholic bishops in the public policy arena. Like California, Michigan has a high-profile voucher initiative backed by a rich businessman. But unlike Draper, Amway president Dick Devos and his wife, Betsy, driving forces behind Proposal 1 in Michigan, have cultivated the grass roots. The proposal targets failing school districts -- those with graduation rates of less than two-thirds (currently about 30 of the 557 districts). Michigan's bishops are squarely behind the initiative, as are some prominent African-American leaders.
Broderick has read Broder's book but isn't convinced. "The reality is that you're letting legislators make these changes (and laws), and they're run by big money. So it's six of one and half a dozen of the other," he said. "I don't see what's wrong with ballot initiatives as opposed to legislation."
Broder, however, sees a huge difference between the legislative and initiative processes. For one thing, the disparities in spending are usually greater in initiative campaigns. Special-interest-backed proposals often face nonexistent or meagerly funded opposition, he says.
"And the television ads that are used to attack and promote initiatives are even more prone to distortion and rampant falsehood than campaign ads for candidates," Broder said. "There just seems to be no inhibition at all on what facts or arguments you make up to either promote or destroy an initiative." He also doubts that voters can get enough information to make informed choices about more than a few ballot initiatives.
Still, Broder believes the initiative system can be reformed. He applauds an Arizona law stipulating that initiative advertisements identify the biggest contributors and points to a failed attempt by Oregon legislators to raise the number of signatures required to place initiatives on ballots.
"It's not going to go away, and it shouldn't go away," he said of the century-old process. "My argument is that we should look at what is actually happening at the state level before we embark on an expansion of the initiative process." He is talking about the distinct possibility that sometime soon, there will be a new political movement -- to institute a national system of federal ballot initiatives.
William Bole is a freelance journalist based in Lowell, Mass. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times Syndicate, among other newspapers and wire services.
Carol Hogan, spokeswoman, California Catholic Conference, Sacramento, Calif.
916-443-4851; ed-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
David Broder, Washington Post columnist, author of "Democracy Derailed,"
Daniel B. Jeffs, founder, The Direct Democracy Center, Apple Valley, Calif.;
Robert Teegarden, education specialist, California Catholic Conference,
916-313-4013; e-mail: Rteegarden@cacatholic.org
Brian Broderick, education specialist, Michigan Catholic Conference,
Lansing, Mich., 517-372-9310.
M. Dane Waters, director, Initiative and Referendum Institute,
Washington, D.C., 202-429-5539;
Web site: www.iandrinstitute.org
Ballot Watch Web site: www.ballotwatch.org
Maintained by the Initiative and Referendum Institute, the Ballot Watch Web site provides regularly updated status reports on every effort underway to qualify an initiative or referendum for a statewide ballot; a map in which users can click on each state for an update on what measures have been proposed and where they stand; and an overview of upcoming hot issues.
Prop38YES, - School Vouchers 2000, Redwood City, Cal., 888-A-CHOICE; Web site: www.localchoice2000.com
Advocacy group in favor of California's school voucher initiative. Web site includes links and information on Proposition 38 and other ballot initiatives around the country.
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