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Vouchers Lose as Voters Decide Ballot Measures

Initiatives: School proposals fail in Michigan and California. Other issues decided include gun control, marijuana use and bans on gay marriages.


WASHINGTON — The national school voucher movement stumbled in California and Michigan on Tuesday, while gun control advocates in Colorado and Oregon drew on the anger over the Columbine High School killings to toughen gun laws. Bans on gay marriage were approved in Nebraska and Nevada.

Voters in 42 states had the opportunity to weigh in directly on policy issues, deciding more than 200 ballot questions. Maine had a chance to become the second state to allow physician-assisted suicide, and Arizona weighed whether to bar bilingual instruction in public schools. Colorado legalized marijuana for use as a medication. Nevada seemed poised to do the same.

The voucher proposals in Michigan and California were bankrolled by wealthy entrepreneurs, but they failed decisively nonetheless.

The California fight was expected to be the nation's most expensive ballot question battle this year. Venture capitalist Timothy Draper put up $23 million for the campaign to give $4,000 tuition vouchers to all students. Opponents included the state's teachers' union, which spent about $26 million. Spending has probably topped $30 million on both sides.

In Michigan, Amway founder Richard DeVos financed the effort to give $3,300 vouchers to children in failing public schools to subsidize tuition at private schools. The measure was supported by Roman Catholic churches and opposed by the state teachers' union.

"Vouchers as a concept have taken a fatal blow tonight," said Gale Kaufman, lead consultant to the anti-voucher campaign in California. "You had two very different proposals in two big states fail. In California, there was an even amount of money spent--and I believe we were outspent--but we won resoundingly."

Opponents said that vouchers would have drained money from public schools, but supporters said they would bring choice to students trapped in failing schools with low graduation rates. "We have been victorious in the sense that we focused the education establishment on the fact that there is a two-tier system with haves and have-nots, and that 200,000 kids are being denied access to an equal education," said Ed Patru of Kids First! Yes!, which supported the Michigan voucher proposal.

In Alabama, voters removed a 99-year-old provision from the state Constitution that barred interracial marriage. The law was unenforceable under a 1967 Supreme Court ruling. Still, some residents and minority groups were watching the outcome closely. When South Carolina revoked its interracial marriage law two years ago, 38% of voters voted to retain the ban.

Similar laws were once on the books in as many as 40 states, though Alabama would be the last to eliminate its version.

In Nebraska and Nevada, voters amended the state Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The measures were in part an effort to make sure that those states would not have to recognize same-sex marriages approved by other states. Vermont this year approved civil unions for gay couples, which carry the same benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

Usually, states are obligated to recognize the civil actions of other states, but Congress and President Clinton approved a law in 1996 that allowed states to choose not to recognize marriages from other states that are anything but a union between a man and a woman. Thirty-four other states, including California, already have similar laws, and the federal government has said it recognizes only heterosexual marriages for purposes of government pensions and Social Security benefits.

Under Nevada law, voters must approve the question again in 2002 for it to become law.

"One myth is that this is a mean-sprited, bigoted attempt to impose values on a certain segment of our population," said Dan Parsons of Family First in Nebraska, a policy group of evangelical Christians. "But we're not telling anyone how to live their lives. We're just trying to define marriage as it always has been in Nebraska."

In other questions related to gay issues, Oregon voters decided whether to forbid public schools to encourage or sanction homosexuality in class instruction. Civil rights protection for gays and lesbians was on the Maine ballot.

In Arizona, voters were deciding whether to bar bilingual education in public schools and to require all instruction to be given in English. The measure was bankrolled by Silicon Valley software millionaire Ron K. Unz, who had also financed the successful Proposition 227 in California two years ago, which required English-only classes in that state.

Voters in Colorado and Oregon closed the so-called "gun show loophole," which allows people who buy guns from unlicensed dealers at gun shows to avoid the criminal background checks required during gun sales from licensed dealers.

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