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THE NATION

Next Barrier to Vouchers Is Selling Idea to the Public

Education: Court offers momentum, but it has to be shown that the concept is the answer to the school problem.

June 28, 2002|RICHARD LEE COLVIN and MASSIE RITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday allowing public funds to pay tuition at private religious schools removes the legal cloud that has hung over such controversial programs, but not the political one.

Both sides in the debate over vouchers predict that the ruling will fuel a long-range push for them and other forms of school choice around the country. However, even ardent fans of vouchers concede that the decision does little to quickly boost the stock of similar proposals among state legislators or the chances that such plans will soon spread widely.

Many Americans need to be persuaded that vouchers are the answer to their complaints about public education. And public school teachers, through their unions, will be a powerful voice arguing against replicating the Cleveland experiment that was upheld by the court, experts say.

Stanford University political scientist Terry M. Moe, the author of a book about Americans' attitudes toward schools and vouchers, said voters know little about the issue so they are susceptible to arguments from teacher unions that making vouchers widely available would harm the public schools.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 29, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 348 words Type of Material: Correction
Superintendent of public instruction--An article in Friday's Section A about the national prospects for school vouchers incorrectly referred to Jack O'Connell as the state superintendent-elect of public instruction. In fact, O'Connell, who is a Democratic state senator from San Luis Obispo, came in first in a March election but faces a runoff against Katherine H. Smith in the November general election for the position of state superintendent.

"It's simply a matter of power, and it has very little to do with public support or the need for poor kids [to have] more options," Moe said, so while the decision may inspire voucher proponents in many states and cities, they will face "a long, slow, hard process."

The seven-year-old Cleveland program provides vouchers of up to $2,250 for about 4,500 students, mainly from low-income families. Ninety-nine percent use them to attend religious schools.

The nation's largest voucher program is in Milwaukee, where about 11,000 students receive vouchers worth about $5,500 for private schools, secular or parochial. Florida has two similar voucher programs: One is for students who attend schools the state has judged to be failing, and one is for about 350,000 students who have been diagnosed with learning or physical disabilities.

Some states, including Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, give taxpayers a credit or a deduction to offset the cost of private school tuition.

Bills to provide vouchers for students have been introduced in 27 states in recent years, but all have been defeated.

Leah Vukmir, a pro-voucher activist who is running for the Wisconsin Legislature, said the court decision makes vouchers more mainstream and removes any hint of illegitimacy.

"It will create an atmosphere where people will be less worried about it, absolutely," she said. "The Supreme Court's decision confirms what those involved in the movement have known all along, that giving parents options doesn't violate the Constitution."

Jeanne Allen, president of the pro-school choice Center for Education Reform, a Washington advocacy group, was delighted with Thursday's ruling. "It's a great day," she said. The fight now moves to the state legislatures, she said, and the prospects there for victory remain uncertain.

Voucher opponents, whom she derisively referred to as "the education blob," will continue to fight just as hard as her side, she said.

Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Assn., agreed that the nation's largest teacher union will rally against voucher proposals wherever they surface.

"The thing that's amazing about this is that people say this is school reform, and it just makes absolutely no sense to me," he said. Rather than fleeing public schools, the majority of parents want improvements such as "having a quality teacher in every classroom, small class size, resources, high expectations and parental involvement."

Hours after the court released its decision, Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), the House majority leader, proposed a voucher program for disadvantaged children living in Washington, D.C. Depending on their family's income, students could qualify for federally funded scholarships worth up to $5,000.

In California, the battle may be joined as early as next week. That's when state Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside) expects to introduce legislation to give all parents, regardless of income, about $3,800 per child to pay for tuition wherever they see fit.

"This is the beginning of the end of the educational monopoly," said Haynes. "Will it happen this year? Maybe not. But right now their strongest argument ... is now gone, and they can no longer cloak themselves in Mom, apple pie and the Constitution."

A similar California voucher measure met defeat in November 2000, when it was rejected by 71% of the voters. That was an expensive battle in which each side spent more than $30 million. In 1993, California voters rejected a proposal along the same lines.

State Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), who is the state superintendent-elect, said any attempt to revive the issue in California will fail, regardless of the court's decision.

"There's no support for vouchers in the Legislature, nor is there support among the citizens," he said.

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