SAN DIEGO — San Diego.--In November, California, frequent incubator of America's future, will conduct a vote eclipsing in importance last year's banal presidential choice. If passed, Proposition 174 will offer parents vouchers worth at least half the cost of educating a child in a public school (currently $5,200) and redeemable as private-school tuition. If the chosen school costs less than $2,600, the saving can be used for subsequent grades, or for college.
Private schools often get better results (gauged by test scores and graduation rates) than public schools, but cost less per pupil than public schools. So the larger the number of Californians who would use Proposition 174 vouchers to choose private schools, the more the state would save. Furthermore, Proposition 174 would spur creation of new schools at a time when California's burgeoning school-age population requires (if class sizes are to be maintained) creation of a 600-pupil school every day for 10 years.
Public school unions constantly fault taxpayers for ''shortchanging children.'' Actually, inflation-adjusted public education spending per pupil has about doubled every 20 years since 1945. San Diego teachers' salaries doubled in the last decade and top administrators average $90,000 a year, and in California's bureaucratized education system, non-teachers outnumber teachers.
Many who oppose making school choice available to all parents are themselves parents choosing private schools. (The Clintons, for example.) Nationally, about half of all urban public-school teachers with school-age children send their children to private schools. If (the data are being compiled) the percentage of California public-school teachers sending their children away from public schools is higher than the percentage of the general population doing so, supporters of Proposition 174 can ask: What do teachers know about the public schools that voters ought to bear in mind in November?
Opponents of Proposition 174 already have sunk to what can best be called boring hysteria. For example, Kathleen Brown, the Democrats' probable gubernatorial nominee, warns darkly that a witches' coven'' is talking about starting a school funded by Proposition 174 vouchers. And a hysteria-monger on the side of the California Teachers' Association, the teachers' union, says that in private schools, ''A science course could be teaching kids how to make Molotov cocktails.''
Actually, what the association calls ''unregulated and unaccountable voucher schools'' would not be immune from state regulation, and would be accountable to empowered parents who could remove their children from schools with silly curricula. In contrast, under public education's existing semimonopoly, many parents have no alternative to public schools teaching sexual ''responsibility'' (as defined by condom-pushing ''experts''), environmental ''responsibility'' (as defined by people who think Al Gore is a scientist) and multicultural ''sensitivity'' (as defined by whatever racial, sexual or ethnic faction has captured the curriculum).
The California Teachers Association's president, Del Weber, warns that private-school teachers are subject to fewer credentialing requirements than public-school teachers. Ken Khachigian, strategist for the pro-174 campaign, replies that the public school system produces lower results with its higher credentials, so in what sense are they ''higher''?
The National Education Association, the CTA's national counterpart, is the nation's largest and most politically aggressive union. At last year's Democratic convention, about one-eighth of the delegates were NEA members.
The California association tried to block a vote on Proposition 174 because ''there are some proposals that are so evil that they should never even be presented to the voters.'' This autumn it will spend lavishly to spread hysteria -- witches' covens, Molotov cocktails, whatever --about the ''evil'' of parental choice.
Although the NEA claims not to know how much state and local organizations like the CTA spend on politics, Forbes magazine, extrapolating from spending in four representative states, estimates that at least $16 million is spent annually. Almost that much may be spent in California in support of what Forbes calls the NEA's ''Brezhnev doctrine'' -- socialism, in the form of government control of education, cannot be rolled back anywhere.
But Californians have noticed the perverse correlation -- increasing NEA arrogance and increasing spending on public education coinciding with a decline in educational quality. And Californians can take law-making into their own hands.
In 1978 they slashed property taxes with Proposition 13, thereby presaging the 1980 election results. The NEA is terrified that Proposition 174, another blow against governments' self-aggrandizing grip on society, may have a similar national resonance.
Mr. Khachigian thinks that if his side is outspent by ''only'' three-to-one, Proposition 174 will pass. The NEA asserts that permitting parental choice will devastate public education. Mr. Khachigian can rest his case on that assertion, the NEA's damning assessment of public education.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.