LOS ANGELES -- The stage is being set in California for what could be one of the most bitter and expensive political battles in the history of American public education, a battle that could well shape the future relationship between public and private schools nationally.
Proponents of a plan that would provide parents with what they call public "scholarships," or vouchers redeemable at public or private schools, including parochial schools, say they have gathered enough signatures to put the proposal to voters on the ballot in November as an amendment to the California Constitution. Opponents, led by teachers and school administrators, say they are ready to go to almost any length to defeat it.
If the measure passes, it would create the most far-reaching "choice" system of schooling in the United States. Other states have enacted some form of parental choice, but within the public school system.
Under the California plan, a parent choosing a private school would get $2,600 a year toward tuition from the state; if the choice is to stay in a public school, that school would get $5,200 a year.
It is not yet clear that the measure will qualify for the ballot. Backers say they have gathered 935,000 signatures statewide, well more than the 615,958 needed to put the amendment measure on the ballot. Voting officials in the state's 58 counties have begun the process of taking 3 percent random samples of the signatures to determine how many came from properly registered voters. The number will be reduced by the rate of invalid signatures found.
"This puts power and decision-making into the hands of parents and children," said Kevin D. Teasley, vice chairman of the Choice-in-Education League, which has conducted the signature campaign.
"This is not designed to destroy the public schools but to help them," Mr. Teasley said. "This initiative will hold the schools accountable and competitive."
The effort has drawn the backing of such diverse figures as William J. Bennett, former secretary of education in the Reagan administration, and former Sen. John V. Tunney, a California Democrat. The Bush administration has also lent an approving hand. Vice President Dan Quayle recently attended a fund-raising event for the campaign, which has raised about $1 million.
A coalition of opponents has vowed to raise at least $5 million to fight the measure. Called the Committee to Educate Against Vouchers, the coalition includes the Association of California School Administrators, the state PTA and the California Teachers Association, which represents 230,000 teachers.
"This particular solution hits the nail right on the thumb," said Ralph J. Flynn, executive director of the teachers association. "It simply does not address the difficulties -- which are grossly inadequate resources, not how they are distributed."
Robert E. Wells, director of governmental relations for the school administrators association, said: "This is clearly the most dangerous attack on public education the state has ever seen. This isn't about choice -- it's about tax subsidies for wealthy parents who already can afford to send their children to private schools."
In 1991, California had 5 million children in public schools; 531,000 others were receiving some form of private schooling, including about 100,000 who were being schooled at home and who would not be eligible for the vouchers. Thus, the chief immediate beneficiaries of the initiative would be parochial schools, attended by about 350,000 students.
The measure sets the scholarship at half the average amount spent by the state and local districts for each pupil in the preceding fiscal year, which would amount to a non-taxable grant of $2,600 to begin with.
The measure also seeks to protect private schools from state regulation. It would prohibit state education officials from imposing any regulations not in place by Oct. 1, 1991, without a three-fourths vote of the California Legislature, and would prevent local authorities from imposing any new health or safety rules on private schools without a two-thirds vote of local governing bodies.