COMMENTARY ON PROPOSITION 174 : Public Money for Private Education: Choice Is Not the Issue : Support for quality public schools, not a second system, is crucial to California's economic and intellectual future.

Choice. It's as American as apple pie and the right to vote, as basic as religious freedom and baseball--but it stops when someone chooses to reach into my pocket to pay for his purchase. As incredible as that choice may appear, it is exactly what Proposition 174, the Parental Choice (voucher) in Education measure on the Nov. 2 ballot, proposes. And it will remain forever in our California Constitution if it becomes law.

Choice is not the issue; public money for private education is the decision facing voters. Although the initiative is deceptively simple, the "fine print" in that document legalizes two school systems when the state can barely afford one. It legitimizes schools taught by anyone, presumably over the age of 18, regardless of diploma or degree, who can gather 25 or more K-12 students of his choosing, from any or all political, religious or cult persuasions and "teaches" them at public expense. Sound overstated? Not really; the Proposition 174 ballot measure enables that and more.

Choice/voucher schools would provide about $2,600 per student in public tax funds through "scholarships" to any who choose to apply. That is a $1.3-billion additional charge to the taxpayers if not one more student leaves the public schools to join the 500,000 currently enrolled private school students in California.

Among Orange County's 446,000 K-12 students attending school every day, about 46,000 are enrolled in private schools. At $2,600 each, the cost to every school district for those 46,000 would be an added burden.

But cost aside, what would this amendment to the Constitution create? A second "system" of schools, autonomous and answerable to no one, housed in buildings not covered by earthquake reinforcing laws, selective in enrolling students, and fundamentally capable of the very discrimination public schools have been fighting for decades--religious, sex, racial, handicapped, moral and intellectual.

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of the ballot measure is that, once enacted, it would be almost impossible to modify or repeal.

Under the initiative, laws or regulations governing private schools that were in effect on Oct. 1, 1991, shall not be changed without a 75% vote of the Legislature.

Furthermore, local governing bodies cannot change health, safety or land-use regulations without a two-thirds vote of the governing body and a majority vote of all registered voters within the jurisdiction, whether or not they vote in that election--a virtual impossibility.

Proposition 174 advocates claim that tax money would be saved, discipline increased and class size reduced, and that competition for the voucher money would force all schools to improve or get out of the business. Nothing in this proposition supports those contentions.

In reality, there would be a further drain on already sparse tax funds, undisciplined students would be rejected by the voucher schools, class enrollments would increase as funds are depleted, and competition would never be feasible between or among institutions that are playing by different rules.

Between now and Nov. 2 the media will be filled with testimonials, letters to the editors and "sound bites" on either side of the Proposition 174 choice/voucher question. Accusations and denials about the quality of California public school education will command our attention.

So what are we to believe?

As county superintendent of schools, I know the quality of education in Orange County--and so do the parents with children in our schools.

Poll after poll shows that people with children in public schools like their schools, have confidence in their children's teachers and administrators, and believe the teachers are doing a good to excellent job with their offspring, despite the financial restrictions of the past few years.

But from media reports, they are very concerned about the schools "over there" . . . in another town or county or state. After all, the 1983 "A Nation at Risk" national study identified our nation's dropping scores and weakening curriculum. What happened? In California, major advances have been made in all areas, despite the almost overwhelming influx of students with little or no English or even formal schooling. For Orange County schools to make visible progress against a tide of the "unschooled" is a major miracle.

Scholastic Aptitude Test results are often cited as "evidence" of the failure of public schools, but reforms in California education in the past decade have shown impressive results.

Nine years ago 35% of California's high school seniors took the SATs; last year 41% sat for the exams designed to test the top 25% of high school seniors. More students are scoring higher in both verbal and math areas despite the increased numbers of limited-English-proficient students among the 100,000 new students entering California schools annually. Orange County scores are even more impressive, despite the escalating number of foreign student admissions.

College Board Advanced Placement exam success rates have almost quadrupled, CAP test scores have risen for all grades and ethnic groups, and students taking physics, chemistry and advanced math classes have almost doubled. In essence, California schools and teachers are not failing our students!

Choice is not the issue; support for quality public education is crucial to our economic and intellectual future. The 1993-94 budget places California dollars per student in the bottom fourth of the nation's schools.

Perhaps, when our economy turns around, we can regain the national prominence we once knew.

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