Sitting in his small, Spartan office, Jerome Porath, school superintendent for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, speaks with enthusiasm about the "endless possibilities" that passage of the school voucher initiative could bring: expansion opportunities, specialized education programs, more computers.
About 400 miles away, Albert Adams, headmaster of the exclusive Lick-Wilmgerding School in San Francisco, lambastes the ballot measure as "devastating to public schools" and a threat to his operation because "any time you take government money, there will be strings attached."
From the well-appointed campuses of the most expensive academies to the more austere setting of church-based schools, California's private schools are deeply divided over whether they should receive state funding--a reflection of their ideological independence and the intense controversy that envelops the Proposition 174 debate.
"Many (private school) organizations find their memberships split," said Joyce McCray, executive director of the Council for American Private Education. "Private schools greatly value their independence and don't necessarily feel bound to each other. One of their greatest assets is their diversity of opinion."
In interviews with leaders of groups representing the majority of the state's 3,839 private schools, and with superintendents, principals and headmasters from a wide variety of campuses, these conclusions about their stances on the measure emerge:
* In general, the most elite and expensive schools, with tuitions of $8,000 to $10,000 a year or more, oppose the initiative, believing that the financing provisions will hurt public schools and lead to government intervention in private school operations.
* Catholic schools, which educate half the state's 554,000 private school students, and most other church-affiliated schools appear to favor the initiative. They have tuitions at or below $2,600.
* There is a greater diversity of opinion among moderately priced religious and secular schools with tuitions between $2,500 and $5,000 a year. Although they appear to favor the measure, their support is not as strong as it is among lower-tuition schools.
The Education Vouchers Initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot would amend the state Constitution to give parents of school-aged children a tax-funded voucher worth $2,600 to spend at a private or parochial school that accepts the child.
Any school with 25 or more children could accept vouchers, as long as the school does not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity or advocate unlawful or hateful behavior.
The vouchers could be redeemed by students who are already enrolled in private academies, as well as by public school pupils who could use them to transfer to private campuses.
The anti-voucher camp believes that the split of opinion among private schools, which could profit by the measure's passage, is a clear signal that the initiative is deeply flawed.
"Their opinion is a reflection of the same concerns that people throughout the state have," said Rick Ruiz, a spokesman for the anti-voucher campaign, which is heavily funded by public school employee associations.
But the pro-voucher campaign said the diversity of opinion on the voucher issue among private schools is one reason it is not counting on private school students' parents--who number about 300,000--to act as a unified voting bloc.
"Intuitively, one would think that parents of private school kids will support this . . . that they have some self-interest and ought to automatically favor this," said Ken Khachigian, Yes on 174's campaign manager. "But the point of school choice is not to benefit private schools. It is to benefit students and kids. The issue has never been private education and public education. The issue is education."
The controversy over vouchers is exemplified in the polar range of opinions among private schools.
At the most exclusive campuses, vouchers hold decidedly little appeal. These schools have long waiting lists and highly competitive admissions standards. Most of their enrollees' parents are affluent and do not need a $2,600 government subsidy to meet tuition. At Lick-Wilmgerding, there were 600 applications for 80 spots this year--and the annual tuition is $10,500.
"The well-to-do parent does not have to look at this initiative as critical for the education of their child. They look at the merits of the initiative and say this is not good," said the headmaster at another tony academy who opposes the measure but asked not to be identified for fear of offending parents at his school. "The less affluent view it as critical to offering alternatives for their child's education."
At another independent private school--one with a lower tuition--the opinion is the opposite.
Anyim Palmer, founder of the Marcus Garvey School in South-Central Los Angeles, which promotes a rigorous curriculum and studies in African-American culture, said he supports the initiative.