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Most Expect Movement for Vouchers to Survive Vote

The California initiative is lagging in the polls. But backers of the nationwide effort suggest other approaches might have a better chance of success.

October 18, 2000|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

With California's vouchers-for-all initiative seriously lagging in the polls, advocates and opponents are pondering what a defeat would mean for the future of the national voucher movement.

Proposition 38's loss in the Golden State could slow the crusade's momentum, but it is unlikely to squelch the campaign altogether, academics and policy watchers say.

Rather, they say, failure to pass the universal, statewide program--far more radical than any of the other public or private voucher experiments tried to date--could spur proponents from across the political spectrum to converge on a patch of common turf.

"If it fails, my hope is that supporters of choice will realize that if this is going to move forward, we have to change from this libertarian approach to one like Milwaukee, Cleveland or Florida that is targeted to [families'] need or failing schools," said Stephen Sugarman, a UC Berkeley law professor and longtime voucher advocate.

Proposition 38 would provide taxpayer-funded vouchers worth at least $4,000 that any of the state's 6.6 million schoolchildren could use to attend a private or religious school. The California program would dwarf existing voucher experiments in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida, where a total of about 14,000 students participate.

Proponents of targeted voucher programs aimed at helping children in disadvantaged neighborhoods and schools continue to excoriate Timothy Draper, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist behind Proposition 38. They contend that he turned off many voters by seeking vouchers for all of California's schoolchildren, even those from affluent families who already send their children to private schools.

Through September, the Yes on 38 campaign has spent about $31.4 million, despite having raised only $23 million. Most of the money came from Draper's personal cash and stock fortune.

Opponents, primarily the California Teachers Assn., will probably spend about $22 million in their effort to defeat the measure, with $17 million of that coming from the union, according to Wayne Johnson, its president.

Support for vouchers emanates from several corners of the political arena, from free-market libertarians to liberal inner-city blacks.

The California Catholic Conference, long a supporter of vouchers and other school-choice programs, took Draper to task for not consulting the Catholic Church, the largest provider of private education in the state, before writing his initiative.

In a carefully worded commentary last month, the bishops group stopped short of endorsing Proposition 38 and instead raised concerns about the equality of educational opportunities for poor youngsters.

"Had we and others committed to educational choice been invited to participate in the development of this proposition, we believe that a more equitable and effective voucher proposal would have resulted," the bishops wrote. They added, however, that its passage would be a step toward "upholding the right of parents to choose the education best suited to the needs of their children."

Michigan voters are also being asked to weigh in on a voucher initiative. That measure, aimed initially at helping students in Detroit and other districts with high dropout rates, appears to be garnering somewhat more support than the California measure. A recent poll showed about 42% of Michigan voters in favor, said David Plank, director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Support for Proposition 38, meanwhile, has been hovering below 40%, said pollster Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California.

Still, the failure of either would not prove to be much of a setback to the movement overall, Plank said.

"Both [measures] were overhasty and not carefully designed," he said. "It's not just tinkering with the education system but transforming it. People are not going to do that on a whim."

Nonetheless, policy analysts said, a loss in one or both states could prompt proponents to be more cautious and to embrace more incremental programs.

"If the idea fails in California and Michigan, it's not going to succeed elsewhere [on a large scale]," Plank said.

Voucher proponents have tended to have more success when going directly to state legislators, said Terry Moe, a Stanford professor who also has criticized Draper's universal proposal.

Florida lawmakers, notably, supported a voucher program that allows students from failing public schools to transfer to private schools at taxpayers' expense.

Moe said neither California's nor Michigan's ballot initiative is "make or break" for the voucher crusade.

"Any system that's going to move from nowhere to transforming the educational system is going to be hit or miss over the long term," Moe said.

He suggested that the presidential election holds far greater significance for the movement. Texas Gov. George W. Bush supports vouchers for low-income students in failing schools, whereas his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, opposes them.

Other voucher supporters are more apprehensive.

"It took seven years to get a voucher initiative back on the [California] ballot," said Henry M. Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University's Teachers College. A defeat, he said, would throw cold water on the movement.

Most observers agreed, however, that the voucher push won't halt. "It has a life of its own," said David Pollard, associate director for public policy at the California Catholic Conference in Sacramento. Until parents have genuine choice, he added, "they're not going to be satisfied."

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Times staff writer Miguel Bustillo in Sacramento contributed to this story.

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