Voucher Initiative Is an Empty Promise : Funds raised would only pay for Spartan-like private schools unless parents added cash of their own. It's unlikely that the proposal would create real choices in schooling.

Carolyn Ellner is dean of the School of Education at Cal State Northridge and chair of the education committee of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn

The stated objective of Proposition 174, the state school-voucher initiative, is to give parents more options in the schools to which they send their children.

Voters in the San Fernando Valley may be attracted by this promise. After all, this is a center of well-documented dissatisfaction with the public schools.

But before jumping on the voucher bandwagon, they should think carefully about whether the promise is realistic.

Statewide, private schools have 550,000 students and room for about 60,000 more. Since the public schools serve 5.5 million students, only about 1% of currently enrolled public-school children could fit into existing private schools.

Proponents of vouchers say they will produce healthy competition between public and private education. If that is true, obviously there must be new private schools. Otherwise the vouchers will simply give a state handout to parents with children in private schools.

Are there educators and entrepreneurs waiting for the voucher-given opportunity to open schools?

Can they do the job for $2,600 per pupil, the amount that the voucher would supply? If not, can they do it for $2,600 plus what parents can afford who are currently out of the private school market solely for price reasons?

At $2,600 each, a class of 25 pupils will produce $65,000 in income, the average salary and benefits of an L. A. public school teacher plus $15,000.

What will that buy? There is more to operating a school than teachers' salaries. Let me touch on some of the other costs.

* Classrooms. What will they be like? Because there are few state regulations about the school plant, probably a storefront will do. But even storefronts cost money, and what about space for playgrounds, lunchrooms, restrooms, libraries and other amenities? Will parents be willing to settle for bare walls? What about insurance for these schools?

* Equipment. Schools need furniture, chalkboards, audio-visual material and of course libraries (although this last item, again, is not required by the voucher proposal). Where will the money come from?

* Books and supplies. Because there are no regulations in Proposition 174 addressing the curriculum, the number of books the children use could be minimal. However, if these schools are really going to compete, presumably they will have to teach basic subjects in a professional manner. This requires decent teaching materials.

* Transportation. Children exercising their newly granted choice still need a way to get to school. Proposition 174 provides no money for transportation.

* Non-teaching employees. Although some critics claim administrators are useless, in fact they are necessary. The initiative has no rules about the number or qualifications of these people, so the quality of leadership could vary dramatically. Here as elsewhere, you tend to get what you pay for.

* Outside activities. A good education provides children with experiences in the community--in museums, art galleries and other places of interest. Field trips could be an impossible luxury in a school operating on a thin margin.

* Teachers. It should be obvious that a school operating only with state voucher money could hardly compete with public schools for fully experienced, state-credentialed teachers; the law does not require credentials for private-school teachers.

But, you say, would not some good teachers work for less money in order to be in front of a class of hand-picked pupils and away from the public-school bureaucracy? No doubt some would. But would-- could --a significant number of teachers living in metropolitan Los Angeles survive pay cuts of 20% to 50%?

For the voucher system to produce a true reform, it would have to do more than subsidize existing private and parochial schools and a handful of newcomers operating in Spartan surroundings. It would have to create a significant migration to private education.

Would Proposition 174 do this? Where are the leaders with competence and financially realistic plans for competing with public schools? I have not heard from them and do not expect to.

If the public schools are having difficulty providing good programs for $5,200, half that amount is not going to do the trick.

Rather than divert large amounts of tax money to private schools, we should reform public schools to create choices. We should build on LEARN, the educational reform group, and other options. We should not sap the public school system of substantial dollars to underwrite private schools.

We should use the money to make a better future for all, not a lucky few.

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