Making Changes To Win Over Critics, Californians File Initiative on Choice

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After making a number of changes aimed at increasing the chances of winning voter approval, sponsors of a ballot initiative that would enable California parents to send their children to public, private, or parochial schools at taxpayers' expense have formally filed a final version of their proposal.

If it receives the required 650,000 valid petition signatures and carries a statewide vote, probably on the November 1992 ballot, the measure would give California residents the most sweeping educational-choice program in the nation. (See Education Week, Sept. 18, 1991.)

The current proposal--the product of a consensus among a number of pro-school-choice groups-retains most of the features of an earlier draft, with a few key expectations:

  • The scholarships would be available to all children, except those already attending private schools, beginning with the 1993-94 school year. The earlier draft limited initial participation to students from low-income families. Children enrolled in private schools as of Oct. 1, 1991, would not be eligible for the program until 1995-96.
  • New accountability measures are included. Under the proposal, the state beard of education could require "scholarship" schools eligible to receive state tuition payments to administer individual student-achievement tests that reflect national standards. The tests would be scored by independent parties, and the composite results for the school at each grade level would be made public.
  • No school with fewer than 20 students would be able to redeem scholarships, unless the legislature made an exception. The provision was designed to prevent the scholarships from funding home schooling.

Scholarship Aid Reduced

total cost of state and local spending per student for education in grades K-12. The earlier draft, by contrast, set the scholarships at about 85 percent of the cost of educating pupils in the public schools.

For a student who enrolled in a school that cost less than the scholarship amount, the difference would be placed in a state trust for the student until the age of 26. Trust funds could be applied toward further education at any scholarship school or any institution of higher education in the state that met the scholarship requirements. . Participating schools would not be required to accept a certain percentage of low-income students or to provide a sliding-fee scale. Supplemental funds would be available to help low-income students with "reasonable transportation" costs, however, and to serve the special needs of students with physical impairments or learning disabilities.

Public schools would no longer have to make empty space in their buildings available for scholarship schools, but they would have to open up enrollment in their schools to all children, regardless of residence, once the district-enrollment assignments are completed.

Much else about the initiative remains the same, including the ease with which private and parochial schools could become scholarship schools, and the assurances that they would remain free from "onerous regulation."

The final draft also calls for an "expeditious process"to enable parents, teachers, and others to change existing public schools into scholarship schools.

By making the changes they did, drafters of the proposal hope to stem earlier criticisms. These included allegations that the measure primarily would subsidize children already in private schools, and that voters would be paying to finance schools--particularly home schools--over which they had little oversight.

Gary Huckaby, whose political consulting firm, Huckaby Rodriguez Inc., is directing the campaign for the initiative, said recent polls have shown state voters favoring both public- and private-school choice by as much as a 7-to-3 margin.

"We know that it's not going to be a slam dunk," Mr. Huckaby said, but added, "The time has come."

Vol. 11, Issue 10, Page 18

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