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Bill Offers Test Run for School Choice

Voucher-style 'scholarships' for Compton students could serve as model for state.

March 24, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A legislative champion of taxpayer-financed vouchers for private and religious schools is targeting the chronically troubled schools of Compton for an experiment he believes may ignite a sweeping shake-up of education in California.

As Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta) sees it, public school students in Compton have been victims of a broken education system for too long, but they can be rescued with voucher-style "scholarships."

"These are kids who have been lost," said Haynes, a conservative Republican from suburban Riverside with long-standing ties to bishops and community activists in urban Compton.

Haynes, an author of past voucher bills, said he introduced his latest plan at the request of a conservative religion-based think tank and some low-income Compton parents who believe their children could get a superior education in private schools but cannot afford it.

However, opponents of the proposal (AB 349) call it a transparent attempt by school voucher advocates in California and nationally to extract from the Legislature what California voters twice denied them at the ballot box in the 1990s.

"Ray Haynes is trying to bring about public financing for private religious education. That's his agenda. As long as he holds public office, he'll never stop," charged Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Assn., which opposes vouchers.

Typically, vouchers are redeemed at the schools themselves. But in a new twist, the Haynes bill would establish an experimental program in which taxpayer-financed subsidies called scholarships would be attached to the student and would travel to the private or parochial school of the student's choice.

In another twist, the Compton experiment would be modeled after the highly popular Cal Grant program for college students, which provides the financially neediest students with grants of as much as $9,708 a year to pay tuition and student fees.

Haynes refused to detail his strategy for getting the bill approved in a Legislature dominated by Democrats who oppose vouchers. But he indicated that packaging the subsidies as scholarships similar to Cal Grant subsidies would make the bill more attractive to Democrats.

The plan would get a five-year test run, starting Jan. 1. The results would be evaluated and decisions made on whether to expand it elsewhere.

As a potential model for the rest of the state, Haynes said, Compton "was a good place to start.... What we need in Compton is a revolution."

For years, the Compton school district, located in a gang-plagued city of 96,000 whose crime and poverty rates are among the highest in the state, has struggled as one of the worst-performing in California.

The school district's leadership has been involved in one scandal after another. The district was taken over by the state for nearly a decade starting in 1993 because of academic and fiscal mismanagement. Dropout rates were high -- 33.7% in 2000 -- as was the number of teachers who did not have full credentials.

But supporters of public schools in Compton insist that reform efforts are showing promising signs of a turnaround. The state has pulled almost completely out of the business of running the district. Student scores on statewide achievement tests have shown modest improvement in some subjects, voters approved an $80-million bond issue last year, and the district has opened its first new school in more than 30 years.

"We are moving in the right direction," said Christine Sanchez, a spokeswoman for Compton schools Supt. Jesse Gonzales. "We have made strides and improvements."

About 30,000 students are enrolled in Compton schools. About 68% are Latino and 30% are African American. White students compose 0.2% while 1.1% are of other races or ethnicities. Virtually all qualify for free or reduced-cost school meals.

In their simplest form, vouchers take tax money earmarked for public education and reroute it for use as tuition at private and parochial schools. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court handed voucher advocates a major victory by upholding the expenditure of public funds for private education.

In the state Legislature, Haynes' bill faces formidable opponents, including teachers unions; Supt. Gonzales; Assemblyman Mervyn M. Dymally, an influential Democrat who represents Compton; and critics who resent a lawmaker from suburban Riverside who they say is injecting himself in the affairs of schools in urban Compton.

"Why isn't he doing it in his own district?" the California Teachers Assn.'s Johnson asked.

Dymally charged that the bill would "totally disrupt" reform efforts at Compton schools and would siphon away scarce funds at a time when school budgets are being slashed as a result of the state's unprecedented budget gap.

In an interview, Dymally dismissed as a marketing tactic the use of the word "scholarship" instead of voucher. "A rose is a rose," he said.

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