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Assembly OKs Vouchers to Pull Students From Low-Performing Schools

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a stinging debate, the Assembly by the barest of margins early Friday passed a measure backed by Gov. Pete Wilson that would provide state money for parents to pull their children out of the lowest-performing public schools and enroll them in private schools.

The bill (AB 3180) by Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) was approved 41 to 35 at the end of a marathon lower-house session dealing with scores of issues. It began at 9 a.m. Thursday morning and ended at 2:45 a.m. Friday, as the Assembly worked to beat a procedural deadline. By the time the Assembly met again and adjourned late Friday afternoon, it had taken up 293 bills in the last two days and 425 during the week.

Pringle’s bill (AB 3180) one of a package of Republican-sponsored education measures, would allow students to qualify for an “opportunity scholarship” provided that they are enrolled at schools performing in the bottom 5% of the state based on test scores.

With a state-paid voucher in hand to pay the fees, the parent could enroll the child elsewhere--even in a private school. The mechanism for determining which schools would qualify remains to be developed because there is no single statewide test.

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When Wilson unveiled the voucher proposal in January, his staff said as many as 250,000 students at nearly 400 schools would be eligible for the vouchers, which could cost several thousand dollars each.

On Friday, Wilson praised the Assembly for passing the education measures, calling them “vital . . . meaningful reforms that our education system so badly needs.”

Other education measures passed by the Assembly included bills to eliminate bilingual education programs as now taught and to allow the restricted charter school system to expand.

However, the Pringle bill in particular appeared headed for defeat in the state Senate. “We’re against using public funds for private education,” Senate Leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) said. He said the voucher measure probably would not survive in the Democratic-controlled upper house.

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The Pringle measure is similar in part to a ballot initiative that was rejected by voters in 1993--a particular sore point with Democratic opponents. Proposition 174 would have set up a statewide school voucher system available to any parent with children in the public school system.

The analysis of the bill completed for the Assembly Committee on Appropriations said it could save the state as much as $100 million because the vouchers would cost less than is spent on a student’s public school education.

The normally restrained Pringle was passionate in his address to the Assembly after he left the speaker’s podium, well past midnight, to argue for the bill. His face red and voice rising, he said that just because his measure might apply largely to schools in low-income districts, “I have faith in those parents to find a better school,” which he indicated would most likely be private.

Pringle said that even without state aid, parents on welfare who can barely afford it are sending their children to the McNair Christian Academy in Compton, “because the public schools have failed.” The school confirmed that some of its students are from welfare families.

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On the vote, Republicans were joined in passing the Pringle bill by three Democrats, one of them Assemblyman Curtis Tucker of Inglewood, who said the aid would be welcome in poor districts where “we’re graduating kids who can’t read their diplomas.”

But others called the measure a ruse to bypass the voters’ will. The bill “is not about scholarships or helping kids,” said Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni (D-Novato). “It’s about vouchers and public dollars going to private schools, religious schools.”

The bilingual bill (AB 2310) by Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos) barely squeaked through with the minimum 41 votes after two days of debate. Besides granting schools options of their own to instruct children not proficient in English, as long as they were effective, parents could pull their children out of classes not conducted mostly in English.

Also approved, 42 to 32, was a measure (AB 3039) by Pringle to make teachers’ pay partly based on merit, as measured by quantifiable criteria such as pupil test scores and how their students perform in the next grade.

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The charter school measure, (AB 2106) by Assemblyman Steve Baldwin (R-El Cajon), passed 44 to 27. It would remove the statewide limit of 100 such schools, where parents and teachers control curriculum.

Another education bill that won approval was a measure by Assemblyman Keith Olberg (R-Victorville) requiring schools to teach and test students on documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Federalist Papers, Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Other Assembly action included:

* Defeat of a measure by Assemblyman Bob Margett (R-Arcadia) that would have banned partial-birth abortions except to save the life of the mother. Proponents said they sought to end a “barbaric” practice; opponents said it was used only in “catastrophic” cases of damaged fetuses. It received only 35 votes.

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* Approval by 58 to 9 of a bill by Assemblywoman Valerie Brown (D-Sonoma) that requires members of the clergy, under penalty of criminal law, to report suspected cases of child molestation, a measure prompted by the case of a Catholic priest accused of molesting children over a period 23 years. The bill, however, does not apply to confidentiality of the confessional. The bill failed at first but it was reconsidered and passed.

* Approval of a reduction in state taxes on vehicle fuel that would save motorists about 2.8 cents on the per-gallon price of gas. The bill (AB 2640) by Pringle would do away, he said, with a “tax on a tax” resulting from overlapping levies. Because of conflicting legislation in the Senate, the fate of Pringle’s bill remained questionable. The vote was 41 to 28.

* Approval of AB 3339 by Assemblyman Bill Hoge (R-Pasadena), which requires chemical castration of child molesters when their sentences are completed after a second conviction. The measure, passed 41 to 27, would require the ex-molester to report to authorities twice monthly to be treated with a drug that all but depletes the sex drive.

* Defeat of a bill, prompted by a Chico apartment house owner, that allows landlords to reject unmarried man-and-woman couples as tenants. The bill by Assemblyman Keith Olberg (R-Victorville) lost 41 to 28.

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Times staff writers Mark Gladstone and Richard Colvin contributed to this story.


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