Calif. Businessman's Drive For Choice Sparking Battle

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The nation's largest state may be headed toward a bitter and divisive clash over school choice in the form of a ballot initiative spearheaded by a leading California businessman.

The proposal--which would include public, private, and parochial schools--has already drawn the ire of Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig. Observers predict that if it gets on next year's ballot, it could become the focus of a multimillion-dollar media battle for public support and divide the state's education and business communities.

Members of EXCEL the Excellence through Choice in Education League--hope this month to file the initiative with the state attorney general, thus beginning the process required for placing it on the November 1992 ballot.

Under the plan put forward by Joseph F. Alibrandi, state funds, in the form of "scholarships," would follow students to public, private, and parochial schools in the state.

Although the proposal would initially be limited to low-income students, it would become available to all children no later than 1997-98.

The draft initiative also strives to increase diversity within the public school system itself, by enabling school districts, community colleges, public universities, counties, and cities to create "public scholarship schools."

These schools would be organized as public nonprofit corporations and would be subject to the same minimal state requirements as private schools. In the process of incorporating such schools, districts and other public agencies could grant them as much or as little leeway as they liked.

Like any eligible private school, public scholarship schools would be able to compete with the public schools for students and receive state tuition payments.

'Do or Die' Issue

Mr. Honig, who estimates that the measure could drain off $2.5 billion a year from the public-school system, has been trying to ward off any choice proposal that would include private schools.

"The idea of a private market solving everything I think is pretty well discarded," he argued. Mr. Honig said he proposed a compromise last month to Mr. Alibrandi, chairman and c.E.o. Of the Whittaker Corporation, a Los Angeles-based aerospace supplier.

If Mr. Alibrandi would drop his proposal, Mr. Honig suggested, he would agree to sponsor legislation that would promote public-school choice and permit teachers to create new public schools under contract with their school district, the state, or the state board of education.

Known as "charter schools," these institutions would have substantial flexibility in how they are run but be held accountable for results. Such a proposal, Mr. Honig said, would increase alternatives within the public-school system without giving up quality control.

Although Mr. Alibrandi has not formally rejected the superintendent's offer, the business official expressed doubt that a compromise could be reached.

Mr. Honig, in turn, appears ready for an all-out fight. "This is a do-ordie issue for the majority of the education community," he said. "That's the line in the sand. If they're going to go ahead with a voucher initiative, I will be right in the front lines against it."

Targeting 'A Top-Down System'

The debate over private-school choice has risen to national prominence in recent months, largely because of its inclusion in President Bush's America 2000 proposal.

But what happens in California could well set the tone for the rest of the country. The Golden State currently serves one of every eight public-school students nationwide.

To place the initiative on the 1992 ballot, backers face the formidable task of gathering about 650,000 valid signatures on petitions.

Even if the petition drive succeeds, Mr. Honig said, educators will spend millions of dollars nationally fighting the California campaign.

The state's education community already has trounced much milder choice proposals. Last year, education groups helped kill a bill sponsored by State Assemblyman Charles W. Quackenbush, which would have permitted choice among public-school districts.

But that fails to raze Mr. Alibrandi, who thinks that the President's support for choice will help propel his initiative to victory.

After spending more than 30 years working on education issues, Mr. Alibrandi said, "I came to the conclusion that the problem is the way the system works."

"It's a top-down system," he argued. "It's a rule-driven system. And any rule-driven system, as evidenced by what's happening in Russia and in Eastern Europe, just stifles creativity and innovation and is not attuned to a market."

Low-Income Focus

To become a "scholarship school" eligible to receive state funds, institutions would have to meet minimal state requirements and could not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, or national origin.

They also could not advocate "unlawful behavior or teach the inferiority of any race." And, in the case of public scholarship schools, they could not teach religion or compel students to profess ideological beliefs.

But the draft initiative specifically states that a school could not be deemed ineligible "Because it teaches moral or social values, philosophy, or religion." And it would bar the state from placing additional requirements on public or private scholarship schools beyond those in effect for private schools on July 1, 1990.

The scholarships would be worth about 85 percent of the cost of educating pupils in the public schools, now an average of $4,826 per student.

Leaders of EXCEL have tried to anticipate criticisms from the education community by focusing their initiative on low-income students.

Scholarships would first be available in 1993-94 to students whose family incomes are in the bottom 20 percent of the state, as measured in income per school-age child.

"We want to give poor kids a jump start," said Mr. Alibrandi, 'because one of the arguments the opposition makes is that poor kids are going to get left out."

In addition, participating schools could not charge low-income students more than the cost of the scholarship and would have to accept up to 15 percent of their enrollment from low-income applicants.

A sliding tuition scale would be available for all other families. The state would have to provide money for "reasonable" transportation costs for low-income students, as well as extra funding for children with learning disabilities or other handicaps.

Public schools would not be forced to participate in the program, but would have to make empty space in their buildings available for rental at actual cost by scholarship schools.

After school districts had completed their student assignments, they could open up any remaining spaces to children who lived in other districts. Those children would then be deemed residents of the receiving district for fiscal purposes.

National Implications Seen

Backers of the plan hope to enlist support from the poor and members of minority groups. "We think the communities that have the largest stake in this are the low-income communities, because their children are not getting educated," said Mike Ford, a retired Marin County businessman who works full time on the initiative.

Excel is also counting on substantial involvement from the business community. The California Business Roundtable currently supports public-school choice, and Jere A. Jacobs, assistant vice president for the Pacific-Telesis Group and deputy chairman of the roundtable's education task force, predicted that "there will be segments of the business community that will embrace a choice initiative."

Gov. Pete Wilson also supports public-school choice, lending his weight to a revised version of the Quackenbush bill currently before the legislature. His stand on the proposed initiative, however, is not clear. "We have not come out in support of [the initiative], but we don't oppose it yet either," said Amy E. Albright, a spokesman for the Governor's office of child development and education. Ms. Albright cautioned that last year's failure of the Quackenbush bill "may fuel a more radical, more extensive, choice initiative" on the 1992 ballot.

John E. Chubb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a leading national proponent of choice, predicted that the fate of the California initiative "will have major implications for how the debate continues in the country."

"If it loses," Mr. Chubb said, "opponents will say, 'See, there's not popular support for this idea.' If it wins, I think it will open the floodgates."

"To be honest," he added, "those of us who think that choice is a good idea are watching this with a certain amount of anxiety."

Vol. 11, Issue 03, Pages 1, 19

Published in Print: September 18, 1991, as Calif. Businessman's Drive For Choice Sparking Battle
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