Trading Places : Voucher Issue Leads Both Backers and Foes to Defy Tradition


On most issues, Maureen Sprunger, a San Marino mother of three, classifies herself as a conservative, one who faithfully voted for Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the last four presidential elections.

But ask her about Proposition 174--the controversial ballot initiative that would give parents tax-supported vouchers to send their children to private and parochial schools--and Sprunger's GOP background fades from view.

"It's very hard to live in San Marino as a Republican and break with the party on certain issues such as education," she said of the proposal, which has been endorsed by such high-profile conservatives as Jack Kemp and William Bennett. "But I don't believe that education is a partisan issue. And I'm absolutely opposed to taking tax dollars and putting them toward private schools."

Several miles and a world away, Marvin Jackson, a South-Central Los Angeles father of five, is also bucking tradition: Eschewing his family's liberal politics, he is embracing the measure, which he believes would grant him more control over the education of his children and the way the state spends his tax money.

"I worked the 40-hour week; I paid the taxes. There should be some responsibility to listen to what I say," Jackson said. "This (initiative) is the first necessary step to bring about a much-needed change in public education in California."

Sprunger and Jackson in many ways represent two poles in the debate over Proposition 174. No one doubts that the measure would radically alter the state's embattled public school system. But whether the change would be for better or worse and whether the system would emerge richer or poorer have become matters of vigorous dispute among those who would arguably be most affected by the measure's passage.

Nearly 5.3 million youngsters attend California public schools--1.5 million of them just in Los Angeles County. The intent of Proposition 174 is to give parents greater freedom to choose the best school for their children by arming them with vouchers worth $2,500 to $2,600. The vouchers could be redeemed at any school, including private and parochial schools, that would accept their children.

The debate among parents over Proposition 174 has intensified recently, crossing traditional ideological and racial lines, and confounding conventional political wisdom.

Many inner-city residents, usually staunch supporters of government institutions, believe the initiative would provide the shock the system needs to reform, forcing flagging campuses to improve through free-market competition with private and parochial schools. Many public school parents in affluent areas, by contrast, predict an accelerated decline of public education and the creation of a two-tiered system of schools for the haves and the have-nots if the voucher campaign succeeds.

Thus far, the measure appears to be trailing among parents of public school students by a margin of 45% to 37%, according to a Los Angeles Times Poll conducted last month. Those numbers mirror the split in opinion among all voters, who oppose the initiative 45% to 39%.

Although no one knows how strongly parents of public school students will turn out to vote in the Nov. 2 special election, both sides in the voucher battle are eagerly courting their favor.

The anti-voucher forces pin much of their hopes of defeating the measure on white suburban parents such as Sprunger, who tend to cherish their local public schools and are ready to defend them.

The way Sprunger, 42, sees it, the initiative represents an attack on large, low-performing urban school systems such as the Los Angeles district but will end up draining a disproportionate amount of money from tiny, successful systems such as San Marino. Both sides of the voucher debate agree that the measure could cost the state up to $1.4 billion a year when fully implemented--that is, when parents of the 550,000 students already enrolled in private schools redeem their vouchers.

"Los Angeles is going to get its wrist slapped, and we are going to get decimated," Sprunger said.

She fears that the San Marino district's only high school--which sends 98% of its students to two- or four-year colleges--would be forced to cut back on courses. Classes on elementary campuses would also balloon in size, she said, and she worried over the impact it would have on her third-grader.

"The small suburban districts that are doing a very good job and meeting the needs that the community sets forth are going to be punished, and probably put in a position where they can't do business," said Sprunger, whose sons who are 16 and 12 years old and whose daughter is 8.

"I think most of the parents in our community who are involved in their kids' education are opposed to this (initiative). They see it as a serious threat to what they moved here for."

To Jackson, however, Proposition 174 is no threat but a chance, finally, to have a little muscle when it comes to his children's education. The pro-voucher campaign is hoping to capitalize on inner-city voters such as Jackson who are dissatisfied with public education and often feel disenfranchised.

Jackson, a 40-year-old father of five school-age youngsters from first grade to high school junior, does not envision immediately pulling his children out of the Los Angeles Unified School District and enrolling them in private institutions.

But he does see himself, voucher in hand, marching into the school principal's office with a list of grievances to be addressed lest he take his business elsewhere.

"The thing about the voucher is it could be used to get local control of our community schools," said Jackson, an electrical mechanic. "You take that voucher and you talk to the principal and you say, 'Let's get some real education going here. Let's get back to some reading, writing and 'rithmetic. Let's get rid of condom distribution. If you want to experiment, get yourself some volunteers. Don't use my children.' "

Jackson, who is African-American, said each voucher would be enough to put his children within reach of a private academy such as nearby Marcus Garvey School, a much-lauded campus of mostly minority students with a waiting list of several hundred names. Annual tuition at the school is about $3,330.

His support of the voucher movement has sparked lively discussions in Jackson's family, whom he is trying to persuade to vote in favor of the measure. He has also spoken to people at church and circulated copies of the initiative, which the Times poll found is supported by a narrow majority in the black community.

Likewise, Sprunger, as volunteer chairwoman of her school district's legislative action committee, has held seminars and drawn up flyers lambasting Proposition 174. She is also trying to enlist the aid of such community organizations as the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club in San Marino, a bedrock GOP community where nearly 70% of the registered voters are Republicans and the median household income exceeds $100,000.

The impact that parents such as Jackson and Sprunger will have at the polls is difficult to assess, however. Only 22% of the state's registered voters have children in public schools, and 8% have children in private and parochial school, according to the latest state poll. In Los Angeles, the numbers are 20% and 8%, respectively.

Voucher opponents hope to convince elderly voters--potentially a swing group--that the initiative will drive down public school quality and, consequently, their property values.

The measure's advocates say they will concentrate on shoring up conservative support and tapping discontent over the quality of public education in California.

Such frustration has led San Fernando Valley homemaker Jill Reiss to support the ballot measure as a court of last resort. A leader in the movement to dismantle the giant Los Angeles Unified School District, Reiss said she is turning to the voucher initiative in large measure because the breakup drive has stalled.

"We have been stymied in our attempts to bring education to a local level, and I don't feel we have any viable options for radical reform and improvement at this point," said Reiss, 32, who transferred her daughter to a parochial school this year. Her son remains in a public school.

"It's not my first choice," she said of the decision to vote in favor of Proposition 174. "Right now, unfortunately, it's my only choice."

Like others who favor the voucher initiative, Reiss has faith that the free-market system will galvanize public schools into improving in order to attract and retain students. Reiss is also confident, unlike voucher opponents, that plenty of affordable private institutions will spring up to meet the demand that vouchers would create.

Francisca Nunez, who lives in Compton with her two school-age youngsters, is not so optimistic.

Nunez, 27, believes private schools, new or old, will stay mostly beyond the reach of working parents because the academies would hike their tuition by whatever amount the vouchers are worth.

"That makes sense," she said. "The parents will have more money and can afford to pay more tuition."

The argument is one that is often advanced by the measure's opponents. Anti-voucher organizations also contend that the voucher plan will trigger the creation of hundreds of schools that will not be regulated or required to meet basic academic standards.

Even so, Diana Ramsey of Watts is planning to vote for the initiative, not so much for the chance to switch her three daughters to private schools but for the ability to be more selective about their public campuses. The initiative also allows parents to choose between public schools, based on space.

"I don't want to take them out of the public school system, but I think there are better public schools that are not in my community," said Ramsey, 31. "Parents (should) have a right to choose what's best."

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