School voucher debate is taken up in Arizona

ON POLITICS

January 26, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- When a broad proposal for school reform that included state-paid vouchers for private schooling got on the ballot in California last year, proponents touted the vote as a prospective national breakthrough. It would be, they said, like the state's 1978 local property tax limit that foretold the nationwide taxpayers' revolt.

The only trouble was that the initiative got buried under an avalanche of opposition from the teachers' unions and allies. The California proposal not only would have created vouchers of $2,600 per child for parents choosing to send their kids to private schools; it also would have permitted creation of "charter schools" established and staffed by individuals without traditional education credentials.

After the plan's defeat, its advocates in the state acknowledged that the scheme was probably too radical for most voters, and for the business interests that usually are major contributors to such politically conservative ideas. The chief paid publicist for the plan, former Republican presidential speech writer Ken Khachigian, vowed that the issue would be right back on the California ballot this year. That has not happened so far, although one group is at the signature-gathering stage.

Meanwhile, the national proponents of local and state school vouchers have turned their sights on Arizona, where a much more modest approach is being supported by Republican Gov. Fife Symington. The vouchers would go to 2,000 children of low-income families, up to 8,000 in the fifth year of the program. The charter-school concept would be tried within the public-school system, in the form of special learning facilities for certain students.

The California Teachers Association, strongly backed by the National Education Association, fought the California package last year. In Arizona, the Arizona Education Association is opposing the voucher plan but supports the state's charter-school approach, says AEA president Kay Lybeck, because it will not permit creation of private schools with uncredentialed teachers.

The Arizona plan, soon to go before the Republican-controlled legislature, is only a shadow of the failed California approach that the national advocates looked to as a harbinger of education change. Nonetheless, they are boosting it as a potential breakthrough. Former Reagan education secretary Bill Bennett and former Bush housing secretary Jack Kemp, now teamed up as co-directors of Empower America, the new conservative think tank, have both marked Arizona as the place where the school voucher campaign will catch fire.

"Events in Arizona should be placed in their broader context," Bennett has written in the Arizona Republic. Ignoring the overwhelming vote against vouchers in California, he contended that "the movement for fundamental reforms in education is gaining momentum across the nation." Kemp has written in the same newspaper that "Arizona is poised to show the nation how bold, comprehensive education reform can be achieved."

But the local supporters of any such school reform must deal with the same basic question that was integral in the defeat of the California ballot initiative -- why should public money be spent for private schooling when there isn't enough to meet public-school needs? The AEA is vigorously fighting cuts already imposed by the state over the last three years in public-school funding.

Arizona, however, is not the only state available as a fallback to the voucher advocates. According to an Empower America spokesman, legislation providing for the allocation of public funds to private schools is pending or being planned in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Georgia and Florida. In Georgia, a voucher law was written in 1961 permitting public financing of private schools as a response to court-ordered school desegregation, and is still on the books. Voucher proponents are trying to use it now, although the state attorney general argues that a 1985 revision in the school aid formula invalidated it.

The school-voucher advocates, in spite of their defeat in California, are picking themselves up off the floor and pressing on in lower-profile arenas.

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