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Major Fight Looms Over Initiative on Vouchers : Schools: Leaders of the education Establishment have blasted a proposal to send tax dollars to private institutions. Advocates of the plan, which could appear on November’s ballot, say it would give parents ‘a real choice.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Causing alarm among public school advocates, supporters of a far-reaching “parental choice” initiative that would funnel tax funds into vouchers for private and parochial schools expect to place the initiative on the November, 1992, ballot.

The proposed constitutional amendment would change the face of California education by requiring the state to provide every school-age child a $2,500 “scholarship” to attend virtually any private or church-related school willing to accept the students.

In addition, groups of public school parents, teachers and administrators could use revenue from the $2,500 vouchers to start new “state scholarship schools,” which, like existing private and church schools, would not be covered by most public school regulations, such as those governing the competence of teachers or the safety of buildings.

The initiative’s supporters plan to begin gathering petition signatures early in January. They need about 620,000 valid signatures and have budgeted $1.3 million to get them.

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The California initiative effort occurs amid a national debate about the problems with public education. While educational choice and voucher plans have been debated periodically over the past 20 years, the ideas recently have moved from the realm of scholarly articles and books to the political arena. President Bush and U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander support the idea of giving tax dollars to private schools.

The California measure would be the most ambitious school choice plan in the nation. On a small scale, the Milwaukee public schools have experimented with a private-school voucher plan.

Under the California proposal, scholarships would begin in 1993-94, except for children already enrolled in private schools, who would be eligible a year later. A $2,500 voucher would accompany each student who moved from public to private school, reducing public school support by that amount. Public schools would continue to receive the full state allotment--currently averaging about $5,000--for each student choosing to remain in public school.

If the measure qualifies for the November, 1992, ballot--and both supporters and opponents believe it will--it should trigger one of the most bruising battles of next year’s election season.

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State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig called the financing the “most malicious” part of the initiative because it would steadily reduce the amount of money for public schools.

“This is so hostile to public education that it will change the nature of the society,” Honig said.

The schools’ chief said the measure will breed “cult schools” that do not have to meet state standards for curriculum content, teacher training, earthquake safety and many other criteria that public schools must fulfill.

“You’ll have no way of knowing what they’re doing,” Honig said. “You could end up with ‘David Duke Academies,’ you could end up with all kinds of things.”

But Kevin Teasley, communications director for the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation and a supporter of the initiative, said Honig and others are using “scare tactics” to attack an idea that would, for the first time in California, “allow the public a real choice” of schools.

The measure would “energize the public schools,” said Joseph F. Alibrande, chairman and chief executive officer of the Whittaker Corp.--an aerospace company based in Los Angeles--and the leading proponent of the “parental choice in education” initiative. “It will create model schools, doing things a different way, that the public schools will want to copy.”

The initiative is sponsored by a group called the Excellence Through Choice-in-Education League (EXCEL). Alibrande and Northern California businessman Everett Berg are co-chairmen; the advisory board includes former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, former Democratic U.S. Sen. John Tunney, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman.

Supporters have launched a major fund-raising drive. Vice President Dan Quayle raised more than $200,000 at a single meeting in Orange County several weeks ago and Bennett, who was education secretary in the Reagan Administration and “drug czar” for President Bush, has made several fund-raising trips to the state.

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Alibrande said Honig threatened, during a meeting last summer, that he and other initiative opponents, principally the California Teachers Assn., would spend at least $10 million to defeat the plan. Honig acknowledged that he told the Alibrande group that “this would be a major campaign.”

Alibrande, who has been involved in educational reform efforts in California since the early 1970s, said he began to plan this initiative because “I was convinced the system is not capable of reforming itself.”

Choice and voucher plans rest on the belief that American public education has been in a steady decline and that efforts to reform the system have gotten nowhere. Initiative backers say regulations governing public schools are too rigid, bureaucracies too large, incentives for improvement inadequate. They believe the only way to solve these problems is to allow people to send their children to whatever schools they want and to provide them with tax dollars.

“The thing we’re trying to accomplish is to really change the incentives in the public system,” Alibrande said. ". . .There are no real incentives to achieve excellence, there are no punishments for failure.”

He added, “The objective here is not to move kids out of the public schools into private schools--the objective is to improve the public schools.”

But, said Del Weber, president of the California Teachers Assn.: “We already have many fine public schools that are playing that role and if we had adequate financial resources, we’d have many more.”

He pointed to the science and math magnet schools that were created as part of the Los Angeles school desegregation plan a decade ago as being “just as good as anything the best private schools do.”

Central to the debate over the initiative is the question of whether it would benefit or harm educational opportunities for low-income, disadvantaged students.

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Supporters of choice believe the $2,500 scholarships would enable these youngsters to attend Catholic schools or other kinds of religious schools, where tuition often is below $2,500 a year.

“We think it will work best where the need is greatest--with poor kids,” said Gary Huckaby, campaign consultant for the initiative.

But John E. Coons, professor of law at UC Berkeley and co-author of a well-known book on educational choice, withdrew from the group drafting the initiative because members would not agree to reserve 15% to 20% of the spaces in voucher-receiving schools for low-income children.

“I thought there should be some tilt toward low-income families,” Coons said, but others in the group “thought it was inappropriate to interfere with the marketplace.”

Teasley, of the Reason Foundation, said Coons left the group because “he wanted quotas.”

Virgil Roberts, president of Solar Records and a member of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a group of business and professional leaders who attempt to improve the quality of public schools, said, “I know that Joe Alibrande is interested in creating a system that would have a positive effect on low-income, minority kids.” But, he added, “This initiative doesn’t do it. This comes across basically as a way for private schools to gain access to public funds to support their programs.”

Roberts said many minority families would not be aware of the scholarships and, even if they were, $2,500 would not be enough to pay for most private schools.

Responding to the criticism that the initiative is simply a means of propping up financially marginal private schools, Burt Carney, legislative coordinator for the Assn. of Christian Schools, acknowledged that the scholarships would be helpful because “a lot of parents are struggling pretty hard to keep their children in our schools.”

The Christian school group includes 750 California schools, with an enrollment of about 120,000. Carney said average tuition is about $2,500--the same as the proposed state scholarship amount.

California’s Catholic bishops have not yet decided whether to support the initiative.

Of the 500,000 students who attend private or church-related schools in California--10% of the total school enrollment in the state--about half are in Catholic schools. Many inner-city parochial elementary schools, hard-pressed for cash, could benefit from the voucher income.

But church sources said the bishops are moving cautiously because of concern that the plan does not assure spaces for low-income youngsters, or require voucher-redeeming schools to accept students with physical or other handicaps.

In addition, the initiative permits the scholarship schools to dismiss any student “who is deriving no substantial academic benefit or is responsible for serious or habitual misconduct related to the school.”

Roberts predicted that most of those dismissed would be low-income, minority youngsters: “It seems to me that four or five years down the road, you’ll have a situation in which middle-class families are putting their kids in these private schools, while public schools will have declining enrollment and income and all the problems--kids who don’t speak English, kids with physical handicaps and all the rest.”

Carney, of the Christian Schools Assn., disagreed.

“We will gear up for those students if the Legislature provides the money, as the initiative calls for,” he said. “That’s not something we would shy away from if we get the money for special teachers, smaller classes and the other things we would need.”

Critics also say the proposal provides no assurance that teachers in the voucher-receiving schools are competent or that they do not have criminal records, that the schools in which they are teaching are safe or that the classes they are teaching have any value.

Said Mary Bergan, president of the California Federation of Teachers (AFL-CIO): “It’s ironic that, at a time when there is a serious discussion about the need for national educational standards, that we would turn around and say, ‘Well, we’re just going to accept this particular group of schools and let them do whatever they want to do.’ ”

Teasley noted that the initiative would deny state scholarships to schools that discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, color or national origin, or that teach hatred. Beyond that, he said, parents would be expected to make sure the schools perform acceptably.


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