Voucher Mania: Will It Spread?

— Joel Jordan

THE OPPONENTS OF private school vouchers can breathe somewhat easier after California voters overwhelmingly defeated Proposition 174 on November 2. The California vote, however, represents only one battle in the right wing’s war against public education—a war of historic importance for the future of education throughout the United States.

If passed, the ballot initiative would have given parents a $2,600 voucher to pay for private or parochial school tuition for their child, including children already attending such schools.

From the beginning of the election campaign, it became obvious that Prop 174 was in big trouble. The opposition outspent the proposition’s proponents over 5-1, with the lion’s share coming from the California Teachers Association (CTA) alone. Pro-174 TV commercials appeared only three weeks before the election, while anti-174 ads saturated the media for months. Most California politicians opposed the measure, including Republican Governor Pete Wilson and his two main Democratic rivals in next year’s gubernatorial election.

Every major player in the public schools, from the Association of California School Administers to the PTA, along with every major civil rights organization, were also actively opposed. While Prop 174s proponents boasted some big name backers like former Secretary of Education William Bennett, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, and economist Milton Friedman, the main backers of the voucher initiative came primarily from the far right—libertarians, Christian fundamentalists and free-market ideologues.

Yet another obstacle to initiative supporters was that it was written in such a way as to invite criticism from several directions. First, Governor Wilson, who advocates vouchers, and newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times came out against Prop 174 primarily because of the uncertainty of its effects on an already financially strapped public school system (up to 90% of public school funding in California comes from the state government). Legislative analysts concluded that the public schools would have lost up to $1.4 billion if the parents of the 550,000 students already enrolled in private schools used the vouchers to subsidize tuition costs.

The proposition took $5,200 from the Public school budget for every voucher used—$2,600 for the voucher itself and another $2,600 to go back into the state general fund to be used as the legislature saw fit. Savings to the public schools might have occurred in the unlikely event that over a million of California’s five million students transferred to private schools.

Prop 174 had no regulations to govern private schools—whether accreditation, teacher certification, building standards or curriculum. Nor would it have required that private schools test students or report how they spent the money they received. When confronted with these criticisms, pro-voucher advocates could only respond that market forces, rather than public regulation, would guarantee the quality of private schools.

In fact, the proposition virtually eliminated all future regulation of private schools by requiring a three-fourths vote of the state legislature. For local regulation, the proposition required a two-thirds vote of the local governing body as well as a majority vote of all registered voters, whether they vote or not.

While the proposition specifically ruled out discrimination on the basis of race, it was silent on specifying any other criteria for excluding students from private schools, including gender, income, physical condition, or prior grade point average. Disabled groups and their supporters were very vocal in their opposition on this basis.

A Search For Solutions

A closer look at where Proposition 174 enjoyed support reveals some surprises. Of course, parents of children already attending private schools were solidly in favor. But pollsters and campaign workers alike found considerable support among African Americans, despite their traditional support for public education and despite the opposition of almost every major Black politician.

At the same time, opposition to Prop 174 was widespread in white suburbia, even in conservative Orange County. This seeming reversal of historic attitudes reveals that something besides political philosophy was at stake.

In relatively affluent, prediinant1y white suburbs, the public schools have generally served the needs of the munity. Anything but alienating institutions, they are often seen as indispensable community centers. It was no accident, then, that many suburban Republican lawmakers pressured Governor Wilson to relent on making education cuts in the budget battles of last spring. For their constituencies, the public schools are working.

But not so for many parents living in the LA area. Of course, there has always been a racial component to private school enrollment. Ever since the busing controversy in the 1970s, white parents have increasingly turned to private schools or moved out of the district rather than send their children to schools with large nonwhite student populations.

But with district budget cuts totaling some $500 million over the last two years—resulting in increased class size, program cuts, and cutbacks in support services—parents have become increasingly desperate for an alternative to what appears to be a failing system. Especially in the inner cities, where many schools are poorly maintained centers of demoralization and routine, parents are looking for some kind of change, some kick in the pants of bureaucratic inertia.

Unfortunately, the best organized opponents of private school vouchers—including the teacher unions and the PTA—have yet to adequately address these and other issues raised by voucher proponents. The pro-voucher forces are already at work writing a new proposition which avoids some of the mistakes and excesses of 174.

Opponents of private school vouchers would be better prepared for this if they had focused their criticisms of 174 on such fundamental questions as whether public money should be given to private schools, whether subsidizing religious schools violates the separation of church and state, or whether wealthy parents should be given public subsidies to send their children to private schools.

Instead they focused mainly on the excesses, as indicated by the anti-174 slogan: TMA Risk We Can’t Afford." In doing so they inadvertently lent a certain legitimacy to the very idea of private school vouchers, making it more difficult to effectively oppose a ’cleaned up" voucher proposal next time around. More importantly, the anti-voucher forces didn’t appear to understand that growing public dissatisfaction with the public school system fueled the pro-voucher movement, especially in the absence of a real alternative.

To deflect attention from the proposition’s weaknesses, voucher boosters tried to make Prop 174 a referendum on power-mad teacher unions and the deplorable state of public education. They exaggerated and distorted data, arguing that despite vastly increased public school expenditures (due to the lobbying efforts of selfish teacher unions), public schools are doing a worse job than ever.

Voucher opponents responded by defending the performance of public schools under difficult circumstances and by pointing to recent legislation giving parents greater choice in sending their children to other public schools within a district or in another district Such arguments revealed the inability of anti-voucher advocates to offer a clear alternative. While the pro-voucher forces exaggerated the inadequacies of the public schools, they nevertheless touched on a truth which cannot be denied: the public schools are increasingly unable to cope with the myriad of problems brought on by the continuing economic and social crisis devastating families in California.

Grim Prospects

The youth of today face a bleaker future than any generation since the Great Depression. In California, the unemployment rate still hovers around 10%, while low-paid, low-skill service jobs replace the well-paying manufacturing jobs that once awaited a high school graduate. Gangs, violence, drugs and teenage pregnancy are only the most publicized symptoms of the hopelessness besetting our youth, particularly in the inner cities.

Such problems make the jobs of schools that much more difficult Yet the very crisis affecting our youth has also undermined the public schools’ ability to respond. Since the passage of the Proposition 13 in 1979, California has dropped from one of the highest to one of the lowest states in the United States in per pupil funding. Over the past two years, given the state’s continuingbudget problems, just about every school district had to make cuts.

And as the economic crisis brings more impoverished immigrants from all over the world into the United States, particularly California, many school districts are strained to the breaking point. In Los Angeles, 25% of all students are limited- or non-English speaking, while 65% qualify for the free lunch program.

One would hope that such a crisis would have compelled teachers, parents and other advocates of public education to make a concerted fight against budget cuts and for increased state and federal aid to public education. But the fact is that the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the smaller California Federation of Teachers (CM have opted for the defensive strategy of fighting the vouchers. Despite the fact that the decline in funding is a major reason for the popularity of vouchers, they have done so at the expense of waging a fight for school funding or for real school reform.

During the last legislative session, for instance, the CTA, CFT and other school-based organizations sat on their hands while the legislature cut education funding—afraid to wage a fight that might alienate voters, who might then vote for Prop 174. Last year, a coalition of public employee unions, including the CTA and CFT, placed a proposition on the ballot which would have raised billions of dollars for public education and other critical sodal services by closing corporate tax loopholes and raising tax rates on the very wealthy. Yet, CA refused to publicly campaign for this proposition because they didn’t want to provoke a business backlash in favor of vouchers.

In this crisis, voucher proponents are promoting themselves as the only advocates for radical change, with the anti-voucher forces thrust into the position of defending the status quo. In fact, pro-174 supporters have been quick to point out that the two public school choice laws recently, and hastily, signed by the governor would never have passed were it not for the voucher threat.

In the final analysis, private school vouchers do not even begin to speak to the causes behind the crisis of public education. They would, in fact, worsen the condition of the public schools at the expense of a privileged minority.

In this respect, the vouchers must be seen as an individualistic, inequitable and ultimately reactionary alternative to what still needs to be built in California and elsewhere: a grassroots alliance led by parents, teachers and students for increased public school funding and democratic control over the schools. Without such a movement, we can expect more voucher mania, despite the defeat of Proposition 174.

January-February 1994, ATC 48