CALIFORNIA is taking up the controversial issue of school choice in a move that could fundamentally alter public education in the nation's largest state and shape policy nationwide.
A sweeping initiative will be on the November ballot that would provide parents with state-funded vouchers to help pay tuition at private or parochial schools.
If approved, California would become the first state to take tax money from public education and allow it to be spent on private tuition.
"The vote will be very important," says Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. "It would be the first time in the history of the United States that a state had instituted a voucher system."
School choice has long been championed by some conservative and business groups as a way to improve education by opening it up to the rigors of the marketplace. They argue it gives all parents the opportunity to choose where their children will go to school and would make institutions more responsive to students' needs by forcing them to compete for pupils.
Critics, including teachers' unions, say it would further damage already underfunded public schools and lead to a two-tiered education system.
Voucher systems were a central tenet of the Bush administration's "America 2000" program to revitalize education. The Clinton administration opposes private school vouchers - even on an experimental level - though it does support choice among public schools.
Vouchers are being tried in a few localities, most notably Milwaukee. Several states are considering similar programs. But the initiative in California, which has the nation's largest and most diverse student population, will provide the biggest referendum yet on the idea.
The measure wasn't supposed to be on the ballot until June 1994. But late last week, Gov. Pete Wilson (R) called a special election for Nov. 2 to let voters in each county decide if they want to increase their local sales taxes to deal with a budget crunch. Under the state constitution, all voter initiatives that have already qualified for the ballot must be placed on the first available statewide ballot.
The school-choice initiative would give parents the option of accepting a voucher worth about half of what the state spends for each pupil in the public schools - up to $2,500 - to send their children to private institutions. The money would come from reductions in public-school funding.
The measure is supported by a pro-voucher organization called Excel and various religious and private-school groups. They argue that parents should have the right to spend their education tax dollars where they want. They believe greater choice will lead to reform of public schools.
"We're trying to use parental choice as an incentive to improve all schools," says Kevin Teasley of the Choice in Education League, sponsor of the measure.
Opponents include a coalition of public-school interest groups, such as the California Parents-Teachers Association, the California School Boards Association, and the California Teachers Association, the powerful union. They see vouchers as leading to the proliferation of private schools that are largely unregulated and able to pick and choose whatever students they want.
Parents who have more money and can supplement the voucher funding will opt for private schools, exacerbating inequities, they argue. "We will end up in public schools with the poorer kids and the ones who are a problem to educate," says Rick Manter of the Committee to Educate Against Vouchers.
Two states, Oregon and Colorado, have rejected similar ballot measures in the past by substantial margins. The political dynamics here, though, aren't clear-cut.
Special elections usually draw fewer voters, which means organized interest groups have more clout - aiding, in this case, the union-backed opponents. But proponents also have loyal followers likely to turn out.
Both sides promise big expenditures on the campaign - opponents up to $15 million and proponents up to $7 million. Perhaps most important, the election comes at a time when public schools in California - and particularly Los Angeles - are perceived to be in a crisis.
The dissatisfaction may prompt people to vote for the change. Historically, though, voters have been reluctant to spend tax dollars on private tuition.
About 10 percent of the state's students currently attend private schools.