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School Choice Voucher Plan Offers L.A. True Reform : Proposed breakup of district is only a short-term fix. But Proposition 174 would make schools more responsive to concerns of parents.

August 08, 1993|ARNOLD STEINBERG | Arnold Steinberg is a political and public opinion analyst. Clients of his survey research firm include Yes on Proposition 174

If you want a good idea to have a chance in the state Legislature, get a powerful Democrat to back it.

For years, the notion of breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District was ridiculed as misguided San Fernando Valley isolationism. The idea was first proposed by West Valley state Assemblywoman Marian LaFollette, and then seconded by her successor, Paula Boland.

But it languished until Senate Democratic leader David A. Roberti, newly redistricted into the Valley, became a born-again decentralizer and adopted it. Although sidetracked in an Assembly committee, it is sure to return in some form.

One reason the LAUSD should be broken up, some said, was that otherwise voters would opt for a "radical" solution like Proposition 174, the school choice voucher initiative on the November ballot.

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Regardless of LEARN's reformist agenda, and despite the success of the teachers unions (among the state's largest contributors to politicians) and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in preventing the Assembly from voting on the Roberti legislation, the breakup movement continues.

So too should Proposition 174 be supported, because it takes the LEARN agenda and the Roberti legislation to their logical conclusion.

Proposition 174 provides that parents may keep their child in the public school system with full funding. Thus, whether the LAUSD stays the same or breaks up, parents could keep their children in the same public school.

But Proposition 174 also allows parents who opt to move their child to a private school to receive a government voucher redeemable at that private school for 50% of per-student public school funding.

In other words, the government money (or, more correctly, half the government money) for each student would follow the student to the chosen school, just as federal education money once did with the GI Bill of Rights, or just as it now does with the student college loan program.

The concept of school choice is that public schools, now a quasi-monopoly, would face competition and thereby improve. In the process, empowered parents would take a renewed interest in their child's schooling.

Breaking up the LAUSD, while preferable to the status quo, still represents only short-term reform. But Proposition 174, the ultimate decentralization of school choice, represents long-term reform. Like any initiative measure, it has some imperfections that can be ironed out by the state Legislature once it is passed, but it is a giant step in the right direction.

Consider the alternative of what we now have--declining performance without accountability. Your tax dollars go to public schools, based not on student achievement or performance but on a formula of average daily attendance. In other words, based solely on number of bodies. It's almost as if the kids are held hostage by the bureaucrats who want the power that accompanies the dollars.

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In contrast, Proposition 174 would mean that even parents of modest means would receive a voucher that would pay for a substantial portion of private school tuition. Indeed at most private schools, the voucher would be sufficient for the entire tuition. The bottom line is that parents, not politicians, would decide what school is best for their kids. As the parents choose, so flows the money.

Think about the reasons people want to break up the LAUSD. We are told (correctly) it is too centralized, bureaucratized and unresponsive. Much is made of the bloated administration and salaries of the downtown education Establishment. The familiar litany of gangs, drugs and even shootings in L.A. schools is recited.

Not all school districts are as poorly run as Los Angeles', but how long will parents wait as other districts disintegrate to the lowest common denominator so vividly symbolized by the LAUSD?

How many parents give high marks to the largely unnecessary State Department of Education and its discredited onetime superintendent, Bill Honig? Is statewide performance of public schools so much better than what we find in the LAUSD?

Proposition 174's school choice approach, like the proposal to break up the LAUSD, is no panacea. But both reforms will make public schools more responsive to parents. A school choice system will make potentially all public schools more responsive.

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