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Californians Weigh School-Choice System

Parents would use vouchers for private or public schools

CALIFORNIANS are only weeks away from voting on an initiative that could do as much to revolutionize American education as did the creation of public schools. By state constitutional amendment, the ``Parental Choice in Education'' initiative (Proposition 174) would allow parents to choose their children's schools, with the state providing a voucher equal to roughly $2,600, redeemable at any qualified and participating public, private, or religious school. Not since California started the national tax revolt in 1976 by adopting Proposition 13 have voters faced an initiative with greater political and policy consequences.

Proponents, such as the Choice in Education League and former United States Secretary of Education William Bennett, claim the school-choice voucher is needed to rescue children from the deterioration of public education. School choice, they say, will promote efficiency, accountability, performance improvement, and innovation.

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Parents should have the right to choose ``the best'' schools for their children as a matter of principle, they argue, insisting that competition between schools for students and voucher dollars will improve educational quality. Under Prop. 174 parents acting as consumers in a marketplace of schools will decide what constitutes education, who teaches it, and how.

Opponents, led by the California Teachers Association and the California School Boards Association, respond with a litany of reasons to reject Prop. 174. Objections range from excessive financial burdens on the state budget if less than 20 percent of current public school students go to private or religious schools, to the fear of widespread erosion of educational standards and the Balkanization of schools based on gender, income, religion, and ability (all permitted forms of discrimination under Prop. 174).

With the largest number of elementary and secondary school students in the nation - nearly 6 million - California is the biggest prize in the national battle over school choice. It's a campaign worth watching.

Voter turnout is expected to be low since this is a special election scheduled by Gov. Pete Wilson to take the contentious issue of school choice off next June's gubernatorial primary ballot. The governor's decision caught proponents off guard, and they've been playing catch-up with the better-organized opposition ever since. Not incidentally, Mr. Wilson has been slow to take a public position on Prop. 174, fearing electoral retribution either way.

Ironically, two prominent Republican consultants from conservative Orange County head up the opposing campaigns. Bob Nelson, who owns one of the largest political consulting firms in the state, is running the ``No'' campaign. Mr. Nelson made headlines in 1992 when he joined a prominent group of ``Republicans for Clinton'' in Orange County.

Ken Khachigian, a former speech writer for President Ronald Reagan and former California Gov. George Deukmejian, leads the ``Yes'' charge. Mr. Khachigian, a media and strategy specialist, directed Bruce Herchensohn's unsuccessful bid for the US Senate against Barbara Boxer.

Process and personalities aside, both sides are reluctant to address the practical feasibility of a market solution to educational quality. For voters drawn to support Prop. 174 on principle, market decisionmaking is a self-evident virtue. But voucher opponents, who should legitimately criticize the wisdom and efficacy of turning the distribution of educational resources over to the vagaries of the market, have failed to do so. The presumed virtue of market decisionmaking in the educational arena has gone unchallenged.

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UNLIKE most reforms that have come before California voters lately, reforms lacking in prior experience or precedence, neither school choice nor vouchers are new. School-choice programs exist at the district level in nearly every state and affect roughly 25 percent of American's elementary and secondary school students. Similarly, school vouchers have been tried in dozens of locales. Both have been extensively studied and analyzed. Yet, neither side has integrated America's full experience with school choice and voucher programs into the debate beyond occasional anecdotes. Voters will not learn the extent to which, and under what conditions, school-choice vouchers have actually enhanced educational quality, if at all.

Various polls show Prop. 174 losing, though not by much; a fourth of the electorate is still undecided. Mobilizing known supporters will be the key to winning this low-turnout election. But who turns out to vote will also depend upon the mobilization of voters for and against a permanent half-cent increase in the state sales tax (Prop. 172). The GOP opposes it; the governor and a swarm of law enforcement officials endorse it. Not everyone opposed to the sales tax supports school vouchers, especially since the tax is earmarked for public safety. Still, enough of an overlap exists to give Prop. 174 a boost if there is any fire left in California's tax revolt. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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