California’s Row over Vouchers

By Michael Fumento

Investor’s Business Daily, September 24, 1993
Copyright 1993 by Investor’s Business Daily

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"There are some proposals that are so evil that they should never even be presented to the voters," California Teachers Association President D.A. Weber said recently.

No, the talked-of evil did not involve killer whales being fed puppies.

And the subject? Legalizing drug use? Feeding puppies to killer whales at San Diego’s Sea World?

No, the proposal in question was giving tuition vouchers to California parents who choose to educate their children outside the public school system.

If California approves Proposition 174 in November, it would become the first state in the country to allow parents to send their children to private schools at taxpayer expense. The voucher would be worth a little over $2,600, equivalent to half the amount the state pays to educate a child in the public schools.

A Los Angeles Times poll released last week showed the voucher initiative trailing narrowly, by 45% to 39%.

Currently, a small but growing number of cities such as Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and San Antonio have such a system, while a number of states have in recent years considered and rejected various versions of the idea. Most European countries also provide public funds to private schools.

The issue is an emotionally charged one, and it is one that may have national ramifications.

The National Education Association (NEA), one of the country’s largest unions, is expected to spend about $10 million to stop vouchers in California.

On the other side, former Secretary of Education William Bennett and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp have thrown the weight of their Washington-based group, Empower America, behind the proposal.

They say it would set a new education agenda for the nation.

"We are convinced that California is an opportunity for families all over that state to send a message," said Kemp.

At the root of the issue, say voucher supporters, is dissatisfaction with the public school system and its administrators.

"This is their ultimate nightmare," said Terry Moe, a political scientist at Stanford University and a fellow at the Hoover Institution. "The educational establishment runs this system. It’s theirs. Their careers, livelihoods, futures, everything is bound up. Vouchers are a radical transformation to allow kids to escape, and they will fight it to the death."

SAT and ACT scores have shown a general decline in the U.S. over the last few decades. A study released by the Department of Education earlier this month revealed that almost half of American adults are not proficient enough in English to write a letter about a billing error or to calculate the length of a bus trip from a schedule.

Californians may be even worse off.

Results of another test by the Department of Education released last week showed California’s fourth-graders tying for dead last in the country in reading skills.

Some of this is attributable to a recent huge influx of non-English speaking immigrants. But even non-Hispanic whites in the state scored in the bottom fifth of the nation.

The National Assessment of Education Progress test in 1991 found that 56% of California 8th graders perform at a fifth grade level in math, below the 64% figure nationwide. On the other hand, California SAT scores are slightly above the average on the math portion, and only a little below average on the verbal portion.

Dropout Worries

California dropout rates also have many parents worried.

According to James Caterall, associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles Graduate School of Education, almost half of all students entering Los Angeles area high schools will have dropped out before they graduate, although the rate for the state as a whole is lower.

The general perception is that when it comes to academic achievement, private schools are superior. Jack Coons, a professor of law and leading pro-voucher scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, asserts that private schools do in fact perform better than public schools.

"Whichever measure of performance you use, there is a substantially higher performance at a substantially lower cost," he said.

According to a recent article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, unionized teachers have been given a wallet-sized card with talking points against Proposition 174. The first tip reads, "Don’t defend or debate public school performance. Stick to why this proposition is bad."

Ironically, NEA President Al Shanker himself wrote in 1989: "It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve; it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy."

Yet beyond the issue of whether private schools will do a better job is the issue of fairness, says Janet Beales, an education policy analyst for the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles.

"Parents ought to have the right to pull children out of schools that are failing for them," she said.

"People should have a choice over (something that) is so identified with what they are and what they hope for."

Saving Tax Dollars

Beyond this, voucher supporters say the idea will be a money saver to a budget-strapped state. Various studies support their claim.

One study, released last week by the Bionomics Institute in San Rafael, Calif., concluded Proposition 174 "will reduce total state and local K-12 education expenditures by approximately $59 billion during its first ten fiscal years."

By comparison, the state’s entire fiscal year 1993-94 general fund budget is $38.5 billion, with about $15 billion going to public schools.

The study assumes that the share of students from kindergarten through the twelfth grade currently being educated in public schools will drop from the current 92% to about 44%.

That assumption seemed to be substantiated by last week’s Los Angeles Times poll. It indicated that if the measure passes, 42% of parents with children currently in public schools would consider transferring them to private or parochial schools.

The study also takes into account that, two years into the program, parents whose kids are already in private school will be able to use the vouchers.

Voucher opponents fear that, since virtually anybody who can get 25 students can have a private school, extreme groups, including witch covens, will start them up.

Do you have to have a pilot’s license to be graduated from a witch school?

Indeed, a group of Northern California witches has recently said that it intended to open a school that, in theory, could qualify to take vouchers if the initiative wins voter approval.

Private vs. Public Quality

"The words ’quality education’ aren’t in (Proposition 174)," said John Perez, vice president of secondary education for the United Teachers of Los Angeles. "It doesn’t demand teacher credentials or academic standards. There’s no oversight."

But Beales responds that this is already true of private schools and doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Further, "What kind of parent will send a child to a fly-by-night school? Look what’s happening in the private sector now. Do you see a lot of abuse in private schools ripping off kids? No, because parents have control over where they send their children to school."

Some argue the public schools have decayed so thoroughly that they already suffer from the very things voucher opponents warn against.

"Satanism is taught . . ."

Speaking at a Sacramento hearing last week, one woman testified about her public school: "I remember a junior high English teacher who used to conduct seances during class, explain devil worship and discuss sex organs — everything except teach us English."

Many Proposition 174 opponents have also labeled the scheme racist.

"This is simply an initiative to privatize public education and to make it OK to discriminate, whether on the basis of race, gender or physical handicap," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Rita Walters last week.

Choice For The Poor

But voucher supporters say nobody stands to gain more from school choice than inner-city minorities.

". . . but English isn’t."

A Reason Foundation poll found that 69% of black and 51% of Latino parents now enrolled in public schools said they would use the $2,600 voucher. Other polls have shown similar results.

Anyim Palmer, principal of the Marcus Garvey private school in South Central Los Angeles, disagrees strongly with the racist charge.

"It would be a wonderful thing for the inner-city community because it would give many parents options they don’t have at present," he said.

Marcus Garvey has about 400 elementary school students, all black. It has won national acclaim for taking students from one of the most wretched areas of Los Angeles and turning them into scholars who put students in white suburban schools to shame.

Palmer says schools such as his are the last hope of inner-city children and their parents. "Tragically there’s nothing to be done to turn (inner-city) public schools around," he said.

Spending Less For More

Palmer says many parents desperately want to put their children into his school but can’t afford the tuition. "We often have parents who send their kids here a few weeks and then have to take them out," he said.

Opponents have tried to portray vouchers as benefitting the upper class, because that is the group that now is most likely to send kids to private schools.

Yet the Reason poll showed that those who expressed the greatest interest in using vouchers were households earning less than $25,000 a year. Likewise, those households with incomes above $60,000 a year expressed the least interest.

"Well-off people can already afford to pay both the taxes that support the public school system and additionally pay private school education," Beales said. "Further, they tend to live in areas with the best public schools. It’s poor persons and minorities who most desperately feel they need access to private schools and yet can least afford them."

Berkeley’s Coons says even the $2,600 figure may not be enough.

Data from the nonpartisan Southwestern Regional Laboratory in Los Alamitos, Calif. indicates that almost all Catholic elementary schools charge less than $2,600 a year for tuition, and other non-Catholic religious schools are almost as cheap.

But 80% of nonreligious private elementary schools charge more than $2,600. And high school tuition is considerably more expensive, with well less than half of all nonreligious schools having tuition levels below $2,600.

"While the voucher will be good in suburbs where parents can add on to them, (it) is too small to stimulate much growth of new (school) entrepreneurs in the city," said Coons.

Coons says that many parents would send their children to private schools if they could afford them.

Indeed, the San Francisco Examiner reported recently that about 18% of public school teachers in California said they send their children to private schools. That’s about twice the average for the state’s population as a whole.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on legislation and on race issues.