IN a move that could foreshadow radical change in the way America educates its children, Californians will soon vote on the issue of school choice.
One of the most closely watched initiative battles here since the property-tax revolt of 1978, Proposition 174 would allow parents of school-age children to collect a voucher from the state worth about $2,600 per child to help pay public or private school tuition.
With less than a month to go before the Nov. 2 vote, the fight over Prop. 174 is intensifying in newspaper columns, editorials, radio and TV ads, and mailed-to-homes fliers. A Sept. 10 to 13 statewide poll showed that of registered voters who know about the initiative, roughly 20 percent are for it and 20 percent against it, with 60 percent undecided.
Because approval of the measure would mark the first time in United States history that any state had instituted a voucher system, the move is being watched closely by education reformers nationwide. ``The campaign looms very large nationally because of California's size,'' says Bill Martin, spokesman for the National Education Association.
The backdrop for the heated debate is California's decline from No. 1 to below 40th among the states in several indicators, among them student scores and teacher salaries. The largest US state student population (now 5.5 million) will grow by 1.8 million in the next 8 to 10 years, requiring a $25-$35 billion investment in new facilities, according to a state study.
The anti-174 forces here are led by the California Teachers Association (CTA), the Los Angeles City Board of Education, several dozen school districts, and groups advocating separation of church and state. Their $15 million campaign argues that the 550,000 students now in private schools statewide would be eligible for the grant, costing the state an additional $1.3 billion. The $2,600 voucher equals about half of the amount the state spends per pupil on public education.
If Prop. 174 passes, critics says, pressure would mount for new taxes or cuts in other state services just to keep public schools operating as students move elsewhere. And because 174 allows nonpublic schools to reject students based on gender, religion, IQ score, family income, and other criteria, those who most need help would likely be barred from voucher schools.
``Anybody who can recruit 25 kids to open a voucher school could receive tax funding,'' says Ned Hopkins, assistant executive director of the CTA. ``There seems to be no need of curriculum requirements, teacher credentials, regulation, or disclosure laws.''
Proponents of 174 include business and taxpayer alliances, conservative and Republican groups, ethnic coalitions, and private/parochial schools. Former Secretary of Education William Bennett recently stumped the state for the measure. Now being outspent by about 3-to-1, proponents say 174 would improve school choice for every income-level of child, cut red tape, and give more power to parents and teachers.
Because only half of the current state outlay for students would be spent on those choosing to use vouchers, ``the more these scholarships are used, the more money state taxpayers save,'' says Sean Walsh, chief spokesman for ``Yes on 174, A Better Choice.''
Voucher-system dollars would go directly to the chosen school instead of being filtered through Sacramento bureaucrats, he adds.
Crucial to the outcome will be who wins the undecided vote, and how large the turnout will be. But persuading people is proving difficult, organizers say.
``People are coming to this issue with detailed reasoning and definite predisposition,'' says Mark DiCamillo, chief pollster for the independent California Poll. Ned Hopkins of the CTA adds: ``The arguments and economics behind it are so complex that even the eyes of sophisticated audiences glaze over.''
If 174 passes, there is the prospect of a court test. Because parents could use voucher money to send their children to religious schools, civil libertarians say it violates separation of church and state.
But 174 advocates cite a Supreme Court ruling last year that a city could pay for a sign-language interpreter for a deaf student enrolled in a parochial school as evidence of its legality.