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Public Schools Are Scarier Than Vouchers

November 02, 2000|KENNETH L. KHACHIGIAN | Kenneth L. Khachigian was the chief strategist for the Yes on Proposition 174 campaign

Seven years ago, the California teachers union spent more than $10 million to defeat Proposition 174--a school-choice ballot measure--memorably claiming that witches would open voucher schools. This year, the union will spend double that to try to defeat Proposition 38, recycling the stale claims that private schools aren't accountable and calling the initiative "reckless." They even claim on their Web site that Frankenstein and Dracula could teach in private schools.

Not much has changed with the teachers union opposition to competition for the public schools nor, sadly, has the quality of California's public schools changed. But that's not what the opponents of Proposition 174 promised in November 1993, after defeating the ballot measure.

When the 1993 election results were reported, then-Assemblywoman Dede Alpert, a Democrat, told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "My hope is that this proposition will be a true wake-up call to people that we have to have some real fundamental changes in our education system."

Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin, a Democrat who then chaired the Assembly Education Committee, agreed. "I think people still believe in the ability of the state to reform its schools. Now we must show them some results and we must do it immediately," she told The Times after learning of the measure's defeat.

Eastin now holds the state's top education job--superintendent of public instruction. Alpert, now a state senator, today chairs the Senate Education Committee.

But seven years after the defeat of Proposition 174, little improvement has been made in the public schools. Eight out of 10 of our fourth-graders cannot read proficiently. We sit near the bottom of national rankings for class size, computers per children and teacher-student ratio. The Los Angeles Unified School District is one of the state's most troubled school districts.

What did the LAUSD executives promise the public after helping defeat school choice in 1993? The president of the LAUSD board told a newspaper, "The reality is that we know we have a lot of work to do in the L.A. Unified School District. Putting 174 behind us gives us the opportunity to get down to the business of turning this school district around."

Yet in 1998, barely half of LAUSD high school seniors qualified for a diploma at the end of their senior year. And on the recent Academic Performance Index scores, only 25 out of the LAUSD's 444 elementary schools scored at 800 or above--the score state officials say is the mark of a decent school. None of the district's 73 middle schools and only one of its 51 high schools reached the 800 level. Clearly, the educational establishment ignored the public's wake-up call.

The California teachers union now is attempting to win "no" votes on Proposition 38 by scaring the public away from real educational choice. Their claim of no accountability is, bluntly, insulting to parents. The schools are accountable to parents or guardians--the strongest advocates a child could have. Moreover, Proposition 38 requires private schools to conduct and release financial audits.

As to the claims that Proposition 38 would cost taxpayers too much, we're spending nearly $8,000 per pupil in public schools now. For every student who leaves the public system, the state saves roughly $4,000. If 15% of the current public school population took advantage of vouchers, the state would save at least $700 million annually.

And to those who call vouchers a reckless experiment, I'd say that when public schools experimented with fuzzy math, abandoned using phonics to teach English and left three-quarters of our eighth-graders unable to read proficiently, the word reckless is best applied to those apologists for failure in public schools.

Let's not forget that one out of five California high school students will not graduate. And more than 23,000 kids are victims of violent crimes in public schools each year. Sen. Alpert had it right when she told the San Diego Union-Tribune on Nov. 3, 1993, "We're going to have to really open ourselves up, and not let unions, not let bureaucracies, not let traditional thinking get in our way."

This year, voters should not let the unions, not let the bureaucrats and not let the status quo stand in the way of change. The system is flunking. Proposition 38 represents the refreshing breeze of reform and will, at last, rescue some of California's children.

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