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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Real Lessons Behind Debate on Prop. 174

September 27, 1993|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Californians in the next five weeks will be hearing a lot about the "failure" of public schools, and parents deserving "the right to choose" a private education for their children.

From the other side, there will be repeated warnings about private schools not being held accountable to the public for how they spend tax dollars if the voucher initiative passes. There will be ominous predictions of weirdo school operators, perhaps even witches.

Although many of these arguments have merit and provide legitimate campaign fodder, they evade the root issues--the central questions of public policy--that are raised by Proposition 174. And they are:

* Whether public tax dollars should be given to private schools.

* Whether providing sizable sums of government money to religious schools violates the doctrine of separation of church and state.

* Whether wealthy parents should be subsidized by other taxpayers if they choose a private education for their children.

You haven't heard much about these core issues and--if the current direction of both campaigns is any clue--you won't hear much more before Election Day, Nov. 2. It's not politically useful for either side to focus on them.

So the electorate loses an opportunity for meaty debate.

*

The proponents of Proposition 174 are avoiding these questions because they lack salable answers, at least any that could be sold to a wide spectrum of voters. When prodded, voucher advocates cite the precedent of government grants for private college students and especially the GI Bill after World War II.

But trying to rationalize mass public subsidies of private elementary and high school education on that basis ignores some important points. One is that no college in the land grants free admission comparable to the public primary and secondary schools. Secondly, a criteria of need must be met to obtain the college grants. And, finally, those World War II vets had laid their lives on the line and sacrificed their normal college years to earn their GI scholarships.

Under Proposition 174, any child regardless of need would qualify for a "scholarship" of roughly $2,600. There are about 550,000 private school students in California, 75% of them at religious schools.

The proponents' strategy is to attack public schools and exhort voters to "shake 'em up" and "send a message." They realize that their core constituencies--the private school parents and religious right--already warmly endorse the prospect of government subsidies. So the campaigners prefer to talk about something else.

The opponents have a somewhat similar situation: Their core constituency--the education Establishment, particularly teachers--already emphatically opposes giving scarce public funds to private schools. So in TV commercials and campaign literature, opposition strategists target the waverers, the voters who are upset with public schools and see possible merit in vouchers but are hesitant.

Philosophic questions of church-state relationships and public subsidies are considered too abstract and potentially a Pandora's box. Instead, opponents are focusing their campaign on the fear of the unknown, on "loopholes" and "uncertainties."

It is the old-fashioned, proven way to fight a ballot initiative: create doubt, assert that regardless of any merits in the concept, this particular measure is badly flawed and too risky. Wait for a better proposal.

"There's a different burden of proof for the 'yes' and the 'no' sides," one veteran campaign strategist says. "The 'no' side only has to create doubt. The 'yes' campaign has to prove this is a better idea than anything else. That's a tough burden."

*

It is not philosophy, but economics, that is moving Gov. Pete Wilson closer to opposing Proposition 174. He fears a big drain on the state treasury. The governor would consider private school vouchers, it is said, but prefers a limited experiment or a gradual phase-in.

Wilson's education adviser, Maureen DiMarco, is opposed to vouchers on all grounds, including philosophic.

"I have a real big problem with the concept," she says. "If we do it for private schools, let's apply it to everything. Maybe I'm unhappy with the police department and want a voucher to hire my own private security firm. It's your choice to opt out of a public service, but it does not excuse you from the obligation to contribute to the common good."

But DiMarco, former president of the Garden Grove School Board, has kept quiet while her boss inches toward a formal position. Anyway, her view may be too philosophical and abstract for the strategists.

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