Falling test scores fuel support for vouchers Calif.voters weigh school funding plan

October 18, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The national test scores released last month were not good. Embarrassing, in fact.

Fourth-graders in California -- a state that once boasted a premier educational system and nationally recognized public schools -- were among the worst readers in the country, scoring as low as children in Mississippi. In the state capital, Acting School Superintendent William D. Dawson said of the numbers: "It is certainly troubling and not acceptable."

In an office in a Los Angeles suburb, the news provoked a different response.

"It had our phones lit up like a Christmas tree," said Sean Walsh, a spokesman for proponents of a controversial ballot initiative that would shift public school dollars to private school students. "The system is broke and in need of fundamental reform, and the newspaper makes our case every day."

Whether the system is "broke" is a matter of opinion here, but growing frustration with the quality of California schools has thrust the Golden State into the forefront of a national debate on "school choice." On Nov. 2, California voters will decide whether to break with convention and change, perhaps irrevocably, the way in which the state funds the education of its children.

Known as Proposition 174, the proposal would require the state to give parents a voucher -- worth about $2,600 -- for use at any school with more than 25 pupils that parents choose, public, private or parochial. The voucher represents about half the average yearly cost of educating a child in public schools, but it could well cover tuition at a parochial school.

If Proposition 174 passes, it would give private and church-affiliated schools public dollars they have never had and divert what could be millions of dollars from the already strapped public schools.

An estimated 550,000 students attend private schools in California.

"It's the most important ballot initiative for education since the formation of the state in 1850," said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University and a former California school board president. "If the voucher [initiative] passes in California, it will be like a shot heard around the country."

The measure has provoked considerable debate on the state of schools in this reputed bellwether of educational change -- where school buses, librarians and music teachers have long been a luxury -- and the quality of education received by the state's 5.2 million students.

With the passage in 1978 of Proposition 13, the state saw a precipitous decline in local property tax revenue, dollars bankrolling schools, police and other public services. Ever since, there has been a steady erosion in the amount of money California spends to educate its children.

At the same time, the schools have seen a dramatic increase in their immigrant population -- 22 percent of California public school students speak limited English -- and its entrenched class of underprivileged students.

'Won't do anything to help'

"The problem as I see it, 174 . . . won't do anything to help the public schools improve," said Mr. Dawson. "It only exacerbates the problems of the public schools. It can only make the problems much worse."

Proposition 174 pits a well-financed, politically savvy education establishment against a handful of wealthy Southern California businessmen and frustrated inner-city parents looking for a way out of some of the state's most crime-plagued schools.

If Proposition 174 passes, it would be the first statewide voucher program in the country. Similar measures in Oregon, Colorado and Washington, D.C., have failed.

"It's the biggest school district in the country," said Allan Odden, a school financing specialist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a former California college professor. "A lot of things happen in California first before elsewhere in the country."

A recent public opinion poll by a San Francisco-based educational research group found that 63 percent of Californians favor the concept of a school choice plan, but a majority polled also said they would oppose a voucher system if it siphoned money from the public schools.

The financial impact of Proposition 174 has been debated by both sides in the contest, each trumpeting multimillion-dollar figures. Two independent think tanks -- the Rand Corp. is one -- have disputed those predictions, saying the price tag is unknown.

But if there's one thing on which most Californians seem to agree, it's the need to change the public school system. A poll by Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research group based at Stanford University and the University of California-Berkeley, found that 87 percent of the more than 1,400 Californians surveyed wanted the educational system changed. And 61 percent said they wanted "a major overhaul," according to the PACE poll.

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