CALIFORNIA IS THE STATE that spawned the tax revolt (remember Proposition 13?) and term limitations. Now some Californians hope to add school vouchers to the "you saw it here first" list. A referendum that would give parents $2,600 in public funds to spend at any private school is the hottest item on the November ballot. Vouchers have been on the agenda in other states in recent years, but California's effort is the most visible and one of the best financed. Backers of Proposition 174 include an unwieldy coalition of conservatives, libertarians, minorities and Christian fundamentalists. They say that California public schools are so terrible that private schools can't be any worse and might be better. Proposition 174's powerful opponents are national and state teachers' unions, which claim that vouchers will destroy public schools by taking away badly needed funds.
At this point, the political fortunes of Proposition 174 are difficult to read. Recent polls show some gains for the "Yes" side. But the "No" side, with a war chest of more than $10 million, is prepared to outspend the enemy by 10 to 1. However, polls and campaign budgets don't tell the whole story. For years, Californians have been bombarded with bad news about their schools. just last month, state taxpayers-who once built the greatest public-university system in the world-learned that their fourth graders scored next to last on a a national reading test. At the bottom was Mississippi, a state with longstanding educational problems. But if that's what voters are getting for their money, voting for radical reform might catch fire.
Even if the initiative fails, educators say it will change the shape of the debate over vouchers. Because it's the nation's largest school system, with more than 12 percent of all elementary- and secondary-school students, California commands the attention of educators around the country. "We think this will be like that brush-fire tax revolt," says Joel Rosenberg of Empower America, a conservative political-action group in Washington, D.C. "Almost every day now, we get a call from someone interested in organizing this kind of campaign in their state."
Referendums are the most popular tactic in the voucher movement. The American Alliance for Better Schools, a conservative group based in Chicago, is preparing ballot initiatives for 20 states. There are local efforts as well. In Jersey City, N.J., Mayor Bret Schundler is behind a local voucher referendum this year. Schundler says the city needs state legislation to set up a voucher system; the referendum will tell state lawmakers what voters want. State legislatures are another battleground. Bills are expected soon in Arizona and Kansas, with several other states to follow, according to the Education Commission of the States, a national school-reform organization. There's also action in the courts. In Chicago, low-income parents are suing the schools because, they claim, their children are not getting the "efficient and high quality" education guaranteed by the state constitution. A county judge has ruled against the parents; the case is now on appeal.
Despite all this activity, there's no evidence that vouchers will do what their proponents claim: provide a better education. In national tests, there's not much difference between public- and private-school students from the same socioeconomic backgrounds. So far, the only district in the country to try vouchers is Milwaukee. The pilot program, involving about 700 inner-city children, has had mixed results. John Witte, a University of Wisconsin professor who has studied the two-year-old project, says there has been no change in the math scores of students who used the public money to go to private schools. But the reading scores of voucher students dropped last year-although that may have been because some of the more able students dropped out of the program. "It's certainly not a magic bullet," says Witte, "but it is providing an alternative to the public schools."
Voucher proponents want a bigger canvas than Milwaukee. "We just have to win once," says former education secretary Bill Bennett, who is campaigning for Prop 174. "Then we'll see if it works or doesn't work." This week another former education secretary, Lamar Alexander, will announce the formation of Americans for School Choice, a national political-action group.
To win, voucher advocates must appeal to a broad range of voters. The most recent statewide battle took place last year in Colorado, where a referendum lost 2 to 1 even though polls indicated it would be close. "There was a feeling that the people who would be benefiting were those who could already afford private schools," says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States. In California, supporters have stressed the potential advantages to inner-city kids, who normally wouldn't get to private schools. "Some of the strongest support doesn't come from conservatives," says Bennett, "but from blacks and Hispanics."
INDEED, SOME POLLS HAVE SHOWN that blacks may be more likely than whites to support vouchers. A June 1992 study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank in Washington, found that 88 percent of blacks backed vouchers, a higher percentage than more general surveys of voters have shown.
In California, where blacks make up less than 8 percent of the population, the outcome is far from certain. Until recently the polls showed Proposition 174 behind, but a survey released last week by PACE, an independent group, indicated that 63 percent of voters were in favor of some voucher concept. However, 87 percent of voters also favored strict controls of private schools that get public money-provisions not included in Proposition 174.
If 174 is defeated, it may be because there are still many questions about how vouchers would work. In fact, 174's language is so murky that no one is sure when vouchers would go into effect. Another unresolved issue: how much vouchers would cost. No one knows how many of the state's 5.3 million students would take the money and run. Even if none did, an additional 550,000 students already attend private schools and the price tag for them would be roughly $1.35 billion. Still, some economists argue that the vouchers might somehow save the state money because $2,600 is less than the average statewide cost per pupil.
Enter the political spin doctors. Both sides have enough funds to fill California air-waves with voucher ads on the pro-voucher side, most of the $1 million raised comes from a relatively small group. The deepest pockets belong to Howard Ahmanson, a self-described "evangelical Episcopalian" from Orange County He had donated $411,823 as of Sept. 18. Ahmanson, a frequent patron of conservative Christian causes, once told a reporter: "My purpose is total integration of Biblical law into our lives." Another top contributor is Joseph Jacobs, chairman of an engineering and construction firm in Pasadena ($79,500 as of Sept. 18). His reasons for giving: "When I realized that education had become an absolute monopoly in the hands of professional teachers, I became concerned as a free-market enthusiast." There's out-of-state money as well, including $50,000 from David Koch, a Kansas industrialist who ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket in 1980.
This isn't the first time an odd-couple coalition has backed vouchers. George O'Brien, a San Francisco Libertarian, recalls pushing the issue back in the 1970s. Then, his allies were leftists who thought that more school choice would help inner-city blacks. This time his partners come from the religious right. "The one thing that unites us is that we're all anti-establishment," says O'Brien. There have been tensions, but Ken Khachigian, chief political strategist for the voucher forces who has worked for several state GOP candidates (including Gov. Pete Wilson), says everyone's a true believer. His opponents, he says, would be making a mistake "if they're judging my army by the number of my contributors."
Anti-voucher forces have $10 million-including more than $8 million from the California Teachers Association-to portray 174 as a dangerous idea. "People don't want to spend tax money on schools they can't control," says Rick Manter, campaign manager for the fight against 174. If the polls look favorable as the election nears, Manter is prepared to "go positive" and try to build support for public schools rather than attack 174. Given the near-universal dissatisfaction with the status quo, that may be the most difficult fight of all.
If voters approve the November referendum, California's 5.3 million students will have about 82,600 each to spend on the school of their choice.
ETHNIC MAKEUP White 43.4% Hispanic 36.1 Black 8.6 Asian 8.1 Filipino 2.4 Am. Indian, Alaskan .8 Pacific Islander .6 ENGLISH PROFICIENCY Native English speakers 66.7% Limited English 21.1 (Up 65% 1998-92) Fluent, as second language 12.2 COSTS Private school tuition $8,500-10,900 Public schools* 4,569 Parochial school tuition 1,100-3,600 *STATE SPENDING PER STUDENT. SOURCE: CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION (BLUMRICH--NEWSWEEK)