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Vouchers Don’t Add Up

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It’s awfully tempting to support Proposition 38, especially when the excesses and failures of the Los Angeles Unified School District are recalled: too many children who can’t read, too many overcrowded classes, too many missing textbooks. What’s a frustrated parent got to lose by voting for Proposition 38?

For those in the worst schools, not much. But most public schools in California do not suffer all of the conditions described above. Lots of public schools work well, and recent test scores show many more are improving. But Proposition 38, an initiative that would change the state Constitution, would impose a blanket, radical change. What spurred it is understandable, but in its details it is not wise.

The initiative promises a $4,000 scholarship for every school-age child. Although the subsidy would be phased in for children already in private school, eventually the son or daughter of a multimillionaire would get as much as the state’s poorest student. This entitlement format is intended to make it available to all, regardless of need or income. But even in the voucher program in Milwaukee, considered a model by proponents of Proposition 38, there was a recognition that problem schools and lack of choice are concentrated in poor areas; it is limited to low-income families. No other voucher program goes as far as Proposition 38, and none so radically shifts state funding from public to private systems.

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Proposition 38 would change public education statewide without first experimenting to determine what type of state subsidy would lead to high-quality education for the most children. Why start with an approach as drastic as a constitutional amendment, which would be difficult to change, without trying out a smaller version where the need is greatest?

Capacity and quality are also central to this debate. California’s public school enrollment tops 6 million students. The number who will want to leave public schools isn’t known, but even a small percentage would greatly exceed the number of open spaces in existing private and religious schools. New schools would open over time in response to vouchers, but as the decade-long voucher plan in Milwaukee is showing, some will have as much trouble keeping good teachers and raising test scores as the nearby public schools.

While $4,000 may seem like a lot to a parent who has few options, elite private schools charge upward of $20,000 a year. The proposed amount would cover tuition at most religious schools, but waiting lists at parochial schools are already longest in neighborhoods with the worst public schools. Even if there were room, there are many parents who do not want a sectarian education for their children.

Tim Draper, the wealthy backer of the measure, believes market forces would encourage the creation of more schools to serve even the toughest, most problematic students. Such schools exist, but in limited supply and rarely at the funding level vouchers provide. Intensely idealistic, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist says his aim is to raise and level the educational playing field in a state increasingly divided by class, producing both the best- and the worst-educated high school graduates. He has included a provision actually increasing per capita funding, though not overall funding, for public education. However, what Draper and his supporters intend and what actually happens may be far different. Change on this scale, with virtually no real-world planning, is certain to cause enormous disruption.

California public schools are improving, though too slowly, and public education is still a fine bargain for part of the student population. The backers of this voucher measure simply bit off too much.

Draper deserves credit for his intentions, but Proposition 38 goes too far.

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