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Warnings of Witches Enliven Debate Over School Vouchers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many of the lawmakers at a legislative hearing on Proposition 174, the school voucher initiative, used their moment on statewide cable television Tuesday to voice strong opposition, setting the theme for the campaign against the November election ballot measure.

Arguing that taxpayer funds could be used for schools run by witches’ covens or by unprincipled fast-buck artists, legislators at a joint meeting of the Assembly and Senate education committees repeatedly attacked the proposal to give $2,600-a-year scholarships to students attending private schools.

When told that private schools in California would have few requirements other than taking attendance, Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) replied: “Satan worshipers are very punctual. Witches’ covens are very punctual.”

He and other lawmakers were responding to reports that a group of Northern California witches intended to open a school that in theory could qualify to take vouchers if the initiative wins voter approval.

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Other legislators joined in the criticism, with Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) asking rhetorically whether a qualifying school could be nothing more than an open field. Sen. Alfred E. Alquist (D-San Jose) said that he had thought about establishing “a chain of fishing schools.”

However, a few legislators present--and a handful of callers watching the California Channel on cable television or from a studio at Cal State Long Beach--offered equally passionate rebuttals. They contended that parental choice would make all schools, public and private, more accountable.

“Do you realistically think parents would send their children to an open field for school?” asked Assemblyman Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside).

And from Long Beach, UC Riverside Prof. Joseph Khouri launched into a lengthy defense of vouchers, calling them “empowerment coupons” that would not destroy public schools but strengthen them. “This is an attempt to shake up a bureaucratic system that is stale and unimaginative,” he said.

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