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School Voucher Plan Sparks Coast-to-Coast Battle

September 16, 1993|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ and ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The battle over California's Proposition 174 was waged on two coasts Wednesday as Republican heavy hitters in Washington endorsed the voucher initiative as education reform, while a coalition of parents in Los Angeles denounced it as being unjust to disabled students.

Jack Kemp and William Bennett, among the initiative's highest-profile supporters, said that by voting for the initiative, Californians would set a new education agenda for the nation.

"We are convinced that California is an opportunity for families all over that state to send a message," said Kemp, a former secretary of housing and urban development. "The only catalyst for change in this whole country is people themselves. . . . It is not going to be led by bureaucrats."

The proposed state constitutional amendment would fundamentally change the way the state spends its education money. It would give parents a $2,600 tax-supported annual voucher to be used at a public, private or parochial school. Any school with 25 or more students could redeem vouchers.

Bennett, secretary of education in the Ronald Reagan Administration, said the nation's public school system is bankrupt. By supporting Proposition 174, Californians will give lower income families greater access to private schools, he said.

Kemp asserted that the measure would also provide the competitive impetus to "improve a broken public school monopoly in America."

At several news conferences in California, the anti-voucher campaign continued pounding home one of its key messages: The initiative is discriminatory.

Public school students with learning and physical disabilities would be unjustly penalized by the measure, which does not guarantee that special education funding will not drop, a group of parents charged Wednesday.

The parents' group--which included State Board of Education member Kathryn Dronenburg--also criticized the November ballot measure for permitting private schools to turn away a child with physical or mental disabilities.

"It is reprehensible to be able to reject a child for no other reason than he or she has a disability," Dronenburg said.

Voucher supporters said private schools must have the freedom to refuse learning or physically disabled students. "Some small schools will not be staffed to handle a child with disabilities," spokesman Sean Walsh said. "It would be unfair to the child to force them to be placed in a learning environment where they could be harmed."

The level of funding for disabled students would also be in question under the measure.

Under current law, the state's 530,000 special education students receive additional money from the federal and state government to pay for the high cost of their education. The proposed amendment leaves it up to the state Legislature to decide whether to continue to give that supplemental money to disabled students.

Voucher supporters are confident that the Legislature will allow the supplemental funds to follow students to the public or private school of choice. "If the Legislature doesn't want to act on it, parents could go to court to get it," said David Barulich, director of research for the Yes on 174 campaign.

But even the additional state and federal funds do not cover the total cost of educating special-needs students, which can exceed $10,000 a year. Public school districts, however, are required to provide schooling for every child.

It costs the Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, $150 million annually to educate its 65,000 learning and physically disabled students. That money is taken out of its general fund budget--dollars allocated to the district based on its total enrollment.

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