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Major Fight Looms Over Initiative on Vouchers : Schools: Leaders of the education Establishment have blasted a proposal to send tax dollars to private institutions. Advocates of the plan, which could appear on November's ballot, say it would give parents 'a real choice.'


SACRAMENTO — Causing alarm among public school advocates, supporters of a far-reaching "parental choice" initiative that would funnel tax funds into vouchers for private and parochial schools expect to place the initiative on the November, 1992, ballot.

The proposed constitutional amendment would change the face of California education by requiring the state to provide every school-age child a $2,500 "scholarship" to attend virtually any private or church-related school willing to accept the students.

In addition, groups of public school parents, teachers and administrators could use revenue from the $2,500 vouchers to start new "state scholarship schools," which, like existing private and church schools, would not be covered by most public school regulations, such as those governing the competence of teachers or the safety of buildings.

The initiative's supporters plan to begin gathering petition signatures early in January. They need about 620,000 valid signatures and have budgeted $1.3 million to get them.

The California initiative effort occurs amid a national debate about the problems with public education. While educational choice and voucher plans have been debated periodically over the past 20 years, the ideas recently have moved from the realm of scholarly articles and books to the political arena. President Bush and U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander support the idea of giving tax dollars to private schools.

The California measure would be the most ambitious school choice plan in the nation. On a small scale, the Milwaukee public schools have experimented with a private-school voucher plan.

Under the California proposal, scholarships would begin in 1993-94, except for children already enrolled in private schools, who would be eligible a year later. A $2,500 voucher would accompany each student who moved from public to private school, reducing public school support by that amount. Public schools would continue to receive the full state allotment--currently averaging about $5,000--for each student choosing to remain in public school.

If the measure qualifies for the November, 1992, ballot--and both supporters and opponents believe it will--it should trigger one of the most bruising battles of next year's election season.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig called the financing the "most malicious" part of the initiative because it would steadily reduce the amount of money for public schools.

"This is so hostile to public education that it will change the nature of the society," Honig said.

The schools' chief said the measure will breed "cult schools" that do not have to meet state standards for curriculum content, teacher training, earthquake safety and many other criteria that public schools must fulfill.

"You'll have no way of knowing what they're doing," Honig said. "You could end up with 'David Duke Academies,' you could end up with all kinds of things."

But Kevin Teasley, communications director for the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation and a supporter of the initiative, said Honig and others are using "scare tactics" to attack an idea that would, for the first time in California, "allow the public a real choice" of schools.

The measure would "energize the public schools," said Joseph F. Alibrande, chairman and chief executive officer of the Whittaker Corp.--an aerospace company based in Los Angeles--and the leading proponent of the "parental choice in education" initiative. "It will create model schools, doing things a different way, that the public schools will want to copy."

The initiative is sponsored by a group called the Excellence Through Choice-in-Education League (EXCEL). Alibrande and Northern California businessman Everett Berg are co-chairmen; the advisory board includes former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, former Democratic U.S. Sen. John Tunney, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman.

Supporters have launched a major fund-raising drive. Vice President Dan Quayle raised more than $200,000 at a single meeting in Orange County several weeks ago and Bennett, who was education secretary in the Reagan Administration and "drug czar" for President Bush, has made several fund-raising trips to the state.

Alibrande said Honig threatened, during a meeting last summer, that he and other initiative opponents, principally the California Teachers Assn., would spend at least $10 million to defeat the plan. Honig acknowledged that he told the Alibrande group that "this would be a major campaign."

Alibrande, who has been involved in educational reform efforts in California since the early 1970s, said he began to plan this initiative because "I was convinced the system is not capable of reforming itself."

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