After Ballot Setback, School-Choice Forces Plan a New Offensive

Advocates argue that more narrowly tailored measures will stand better chance with voters

THIS week California became the third state in as many years to defeat a ballot initiative on school vouchers. Proposals to provide public funds for private schooling also failed in Oregon in 1990 and Colorado in 1992. Yet a smaller-scale, grass-roots movement for education vouchers is gaining momentum.

``It's only a matter of time before vouchers happen,'' says Denis Doyle, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute.

Despite the Clinton administration's opposition to private-school choice, voucher proponents are continuing a vigorous campaign on the issue.

Last month, former Republican education secretaries William Bennett and Lamar Alexander helped establish Americans for School Choice, a political-action group for private-school choice.

Voucher supporters argue that increased competition offers the best hope for students trapped in dysfunctional public schools. But critics view vouchers as a dangerous gamble with America's schoolchildren.

``When you start talking about vouchers, you're talking about walking out on public education,'' said Education Secretary Richard Riley in a recent speech. ``You're talking about surrender.''

In voting down Proposition 174, Californians rejected the radical notion of allowing parents to use a $2,600 voucher at any private school in the state. ``The public is concerned about the lack of regulation,'' Mr. Doyle says. In a recent poll, 63 percent of Californians said they favor the concept of vouchers. But 87 percent said private schools should meet state academic, fiscal, and safety regulations.

Some Proposition 174 supporters are planning to return next year with a more narrow voucher plan. Changes could include: limiting vouchers to poor families, excluding children already in private schools, or eliminating religious schools.

Meanwhile, a diverse group of more limited voucher plans are gaining attention:

Puerto Rico. In September, the Puerto Rican commonwealth passed legislation giving parents $1,500 vouchers for use at any public, private, or religious school. Families must have an income of less than $18,000 to qualify.

So far, more than 1,500 of the 650,000 students on the island have used the vouchers. Although a majority of the transfers are from public to private schools, some private-school students have transferred to public schools. The vouchers may not be used to transfer between private schools. Local teachers' unions are threatening to strike and have sued, arguing the law violates the commonwealth's constitution.

Wisconsin. In 1990, Milwaukee began the first state-funded voucher program in the United States. About 750 low-income families are given $2,900 vouchers to send their children to private, nonreligious schools. Results so far are mixed. Although many parents are pleased with the program, test scores for students transferring to private schools show little progress. Reading scores have dropped and math scores remain unchanged.

Georgia. An Atlanta lawyer representing a mother who wants to take her daughter out of public schools has uncovered a 30-year-old statute providing local and state grants for nonsectarian private-school tuition. The law was passed in 1961, purportedly to ensure children an education when some school districts were threatening to close rather than accept court-ordered desegregation. The state attorney general has argued recently that the law is no longer valid.

Connecticut. In the middle-class suburban town of Fairfield, a group of parents are campaigning for vouchers as a solution to the city's overcrowded public schools. They claim that by helping some children attend private schools, the city could avoid the expense of building additional schools or classrooms. A state representative from Meriden, Conn., has said he plans to propose voucher legislation.

New Jersey. Bret Schundler, the Republican mayor of Jersey City, N.J., has proposed a citywide voucher program. But after the local teachers' union sued, a school-choice referendum was knocked off the November ballot.

In addition to these local efforts, about a dozen state legislatures are expected to consider voucher bills next year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

``Vouchers will happen by the year 2000,'' predicts David Kearns, the assistant secretary of education under Bush.

But the powerful teachers' unions remain adamantly opposed to the idea. The California Teachers Association spent more than $12 million to help defeat Proposition 174.

Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association (NEA) teachers' union, makes it clear that his organization has no plans to retreat on this issue. ``I don't think you are going to see the NEA supporting public tax dollars for private and parochial schools,'' he says in an interview. ``I will be surprised if that happens in my lifetime.''

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