California May Choose School Choice

Back in 1978, Californians passed Proposition 13, a controversial cap on property taxes. Then they sat back and watched their vaunted public education system crumble because of tight budgets. Next month, voters will have a chance to vote on a proposal that proponents--including some key business backers--say will reverse the slide by creating the nation's most far-reaching experiment with school choice. Trouble is, the "choice" would extend to private and parochial schools. So, the state's public-education Establishment is bringing out the big guns to stop it.

Proposition 174, the measure that is causing all the fuss, would give parents a voucher worth $2,600 to be redeemed at whatever school they choose. Opponents say that the $1.3 billion that would end up being paid out to parents of children already in private schools would devastate the state's education budget. They also promise court challenges to the use of tax money for religious schools.

UPHILL FIGHT. Proponents, however, argue that a little competition might do the system some good. "Education is now just a monopoly," says Joseph F. Alibrandi, the chief executive officer of Los Angeles aerospace contractor Whittaker Corp., who orchestrated the signature campaign that put the proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot. "Our objective is to bring the forces of the marketplace to bear to force public schools to improve." The measure is being backed by a coalition of conservative Republicans, libertarians, Catholics, and Christian fundamentalists. If it passes, it would be the nation's first broad-scale voucher system.

Supporters of Proposition 174 face an uphill battle, though. The opposition has raised more than $10 million and has already started running extensive television advertising poking holes in the idea. Most of the money comes from the powerful California Teachers Assn., which is assessing its more than 200,000 members $63 each to fight the amendment. Another important naysayer: President Clinton, who in an Oct. 4 speech to the AFL-CIO in San Francisco, opposed the proposal.

Proponents, meanwhile, have garnered just $1.1 million so far, largely because they've failed to enlist much support from business. "Business always likes to present itself as a friend of education, but ends up as a friend of the education Establishment," says William J. Bennett, a former U.S. Education Secretary who supports the measure.

VOLATILITY. Despite long odds, though, supporters have a chance at an upset. In a survey released on Sept. 30, 1,400 California adults ranked education as the issue that should have the highest priority--over the economy and over health care. Three-quarters want a school-choice plan that includes private schools, and 63% are in favor of using vouchers to get there (chart). "Our poll shows a pretty volatile, `we're fed up' attitude, and the initiative plays right into it," says Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University professor and co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), the independent think tank that commissioned the poll.

Public support, however, is far from firm. The main problem is that the measure doesn't set up the safeguards that the public would like to see, and the "No on 174" campaign is deftly exploiting that in its TV ads. Proposition 174 does not hold private schools to the same academic and fiscal standards as public schools, and it would allow private schools to reject students based on their gender or religion, for example. In July, in an attempt to undercut the proposal, state legislators hurriedly passed a bill allowing students to transfer between school districts, a limited form of choice already used in a dozen states.

Even if voters reject Prop 174 this time, it probably won't die. And if it passes, its supporters expect the idea to spread. "For good or ill, the rest of the country looks to California when it wants to see its future," says Bennett. The future, it seems, portends some kind of school voucher system on a grand scale.