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Getting the Jump on the Voucher Issue

September 16, 1993|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — At the end of the legislative hearing, the only people left were two exasperated committee members and three stunned witnesses, plus five paid pros in the audience.

Another hundred or so people--a score of legislators, a dozen witnesses plus a packed house of combatants from both sides--had heard enough Tuesday and retreated to the quiet of their offices or to catch airplanes, some muttering about a kangaroo court. And, of course, it had smacked of that.

What else would one expect of a televised hearing into private school vouchers--Proposition 174--that was conducted by the Assembly and Senate education committees, both controlled by Democrats? A hearing chaired by a stalwart of the education Establishment, Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin (D-Fremont), who next year will run for state superintendent of public instruction. Where the main expert witness was the acting state schools chief, William Dawson, a strong opponent of vouchers who testified that there is nothing in Proposition 174 to keep convicted child molesters from teaching in private schools. (The measure does give the Legislature permission to ban the molesters.)

Where committee members have received nearly half a million dollars in campaign contributions during the past four years from the public schools Establishment, including the California Teachers Assn. This according to a Proposition 174 campaign researcher who was handing out this data to reporters until he was chased from the room by a sergeant-at-arms.


But that's politics. And it's within ground rules. The pro-voucher camp will stage its own kangaroo court with an "Educational Choice Forum" this weekend at the Republican state convention in Anaheim.

Perhaps there the voucher advocates will have an answer for the central question of the campaign--an answer I did not hear Tuesday nor have ever heard: Why should public tax money be given to wealthy parents--indeed, the very rich--to help them pay for educating their children at private schools?

The political answer is that Proposition 174 never would have been able to raise money or develop its voter coalition if the vouchers were "means tested" to go only to poor people.

The central policy issue, on the other hand, was put this way to the committee by Kay Davis, executive director of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce: "It's a parent's right to choose a private school education for their child. But their private dollars, not public dollars, should pay for it."

The five-hour hearing, however, mostly drifted through periphery issues that involve what political strategists call "talking points" developed for wavering voters.

Opponents complained about tax money going to unregulated schools that wouldn't be held publicly accountable for how it is spent. Anybody with at least 25 students, it was noted, could start up a "school" and collect from the state treasury--perhaps "a witch" or a "warlock," maybe holding classes "in a field."

"Realistically, do you think parents would send their kids to a school in an open field?" asked Assemblyman Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside). "Ask the parents of the children at Jonestown," replied Eastin, referring to Jim Jones' People's Temple establishment in Guyana, where 912 followers--most of them Californians--died in a 1978 mass suicide.

A voucher advocate had her own devil tale about a public school. Testified Patricia Aleman: "I remember a junior high English teacher (in El Sereno) who used to conduct seances during class, explain devil worship and discuss sex organs--everything except teaching us English."

She represented the indispensable element of the voucher constituency: People angry at public schools and anxious to send a message.


The hearing echoed the combustion of this issue and was great theater. There were two hours of "interactive" television and radio, with advocates for both sides testifying from Cal State Long Beach and citizens calling in on an 800 number.

The California Channel made the hearing available to 3 million homes through 74 cable systems and also transmitted it to dozens of schools. The entire show will be repeated today starting at 11 a.m.

For me, the best came at the end as the crowd thinned, scripts got tossed and tempers frayed.

"I'm not going to sit here and listen to some smart aleck," asserted Sen. Ralph C. Dills (D-Gardena), a legislator for 36 years, as he scolded the young pro-voucher researcher, John Nelson.

Another young pro-voucher staffer, Chris St. Hilaire, finally told the committee: "This forum is not a format we appreciate. . . . I've got a severe headache. . . . I've got to go."

His show will play better in Anaheim.

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