School vouchers in Calif. may get wrists slapped ON POLITICS



LOS ANGELES -- Ever since the end of World War II, California has prided itself as the state "on the cutting edge of change" in the nation. This is where new ideas and fads start and then, in time, spread East.

Most notable was Proposition 13, approved by California voters in 1978, that put a lid on local property taxes and led to the taxpayers' revolt that caught on in many other states.

So it was with great enthusiasm and hope that important conservative thinkers and leaders around the country embraced the latest proposed California experiment -- school vouchers. Voter petitions placed a plan on the ballot for tomorrow whereby the state would issue vouchers worth about $2,600 to parents preferring to send their children to private schools.

The notion is that the competition thus created would improve both public and private education and would give parents a much greater say in how their kids were educated. It is an idea that warms the hearts of free-market ideologues and was expected to generate heavy conservative support.

True enough, leading conservatives, particularly 1996 prospective Republican presidential candidates, have dutifully trooped to California to speak for the measure, known as Proposition 174. But the polls indicate that barring an 11th-hour turnabout the issue will be soundly defeated. The most recent Los Angeles Times poll has the scheme trailing, 66 percent to 27 percent.

The main reason, says Ken Khachigian, chief organizer of the drive, is the $16 million that foes, led by the California Teachers' Association and other public-employee unions, have poured into the fight -- and a corresponding paucity of financial help for the advocates from a business community that usually supports conservative causes.

Khachigian, a one-time speech writer for Presidents Nixon and Reagan, says the opposition "is running in the clear" in radio and television attacks because his side has been unable to raise the money to defend against a barrage of charges that have scared voters.

They include allegations that the scheme would destroy the public-school system, bankrupt the state, create a host of fly-by-night private schools unaccountable to anyone, and underwrite fundamentalist religious schooling with public funds.

Khachigian acknowledges that many businessmen in the state, themselves educated in what was once regarded the best public school system in the nation, are "culturally tied to public education" and hence not financially supportive of the voucher idea.

Jack Kemp, housing secretary in the Bush administration, a school voucher advocate and a leading 1996 presidential prospect, agrees. "The people of America have a love affair with public education, as they should," Kemp says. Proponents have erred, he says, in letting their campaign be seen as an attack on it "rather than making public education better."

Bob Nelson, a Republican political consultant heading the anti-174, says bipartisan opposition has undercut the advocates' ability to sell the idea on ideological grounds. Prominent Republicans, including members of the state board of education, are strongly against it.

Most notably is Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who while recognizing "the virtues of an experiment in parental choice," says "there is not now the unused private school capacity to enroll sufficient children to make 174 work," and the cost to the financially strapped state would be from $1 billion to $1.6 billion over the first three years.

Hovering over the discussion is the influx of immigrants from Latin America and the resultant pressures on the public school system.

The foes of Prop. 174 are throwing not only money but also hardball politics against it. When former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell, a Republican running for a state Senate seat, came out for vouchers, the teachers union's threat to run one of its own against him led to a turnabout. And a fast-food chain whose executives have supported vouchers has been threatened with a teacher boycott.

All this leads Kemp to observe reluctantly that vouchers may be "an idea whose time has not yet come." Khachigian insists it will be on the ballot again in 1994 if it fails tomorrow. If so, it can expect only more of the same from California's teachers.

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