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Pro-Voucher Forces Waging Uphill Battle in California

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WHITTIER, CALIF.--If there is anyplace where the school-voucher initiative on the California ballot next month could be expected to play well, it is among the predominantly religious-school parents who have gathered here at the Trinity Lutheran Church to hear a debate on the subject.

Proposition 174, which would give parents tax-funded vouchers to help pay for their children's private or parochial school education, has become a lightning rod for the vigorous ideological debate about school choice nationwide.

But talks with these and other parents in the Los Angeles area suggest that people's opinions are based on personal experiences and feelings about the public schools that defy demographic, political, and ideological categories.

Even here, in one of the most conservative parts of the state, opinion on the initiative is divided. As a result, it seems clear that pro-voucher forces are facing an uphill battle just weeks before the Nov. 2 election.

One sign of trouble for the initiative is provided by Coral Simmons, whose three grandchildren attend private schools. She is leaning against the measure, she says, because where tax dollars flow, government intrusion will follow.

"They'll tell us what to teach,'' she warns.

And while Teena Blanco, a welfare mother whose son attends a Christian school with help from his grandparents, is tilted toward the initiative, she also expresses doubts.

"It's not a fix for everything,'' says Ms. Blanco, whose son sits quietly by her side, "but it seems like you're giving a choice more to the parents.''

Nonetheless, she adds, "I'm kind of torn.'' Professors at the community college she attends have told her the measure would harm the public schools and "just wasn't a good bill at all for the kids.''

Voucher proponents are counting on the support of private and parochial school parents, conservative Republicans, and blacks and Hispanics fed up with inner-city public schools. But interviews indicate that those constituencies are split in their views.

Given the vehement opposition of the powerful California Teachers Association and other public education groups, that ambivalence among potential supporters would appear to be decisive.

Still, defeat of the voucher plan could only be a limited reprieve for public education. If the schools do not improve rapidly, many voters say, they will be ready to consider drastic steps.

Trailing in the Polls

Most polls now show Proposition 174 trailing, with pallid enthusiasm even among those groups most likely to back it.

A Los Angeles Times poll conducted last month found that among blacks, conservatives, and private school parents, support for the measure did not exceed 60 percent. Catholics and Republicans were divided in their support.

This month's decision by Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, to oppose the initiative because of its potential to raise taxes could further erode its base among moderate Republicans and the business community. So could two recent analyses that suggest the measure's fiscal impact is impossible to predict. (See Education Week, Oct. 6, 1993.)

The initiative's proponents also are trailing badly in fund-raising in a state where ballot measures are historically won or lost on the basis of costly media advertising. Voucher supporters have raised only $1.1 million, out of a $4 million target, while anti-voucher forces have raised $8.9 million and expect to spend $10 million.

"It's a huge margin,'' said Bruce Cain, the associate director for the Institute for Govermental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. "Unless that changes, I don't see the prospects as very good for this particular voucher initiative.''

Two important swing groups in the off-year election, which is predicted to draw only a little more than a third of registered voters, are moderate Republicans in Southern California and the elderly. Both groups traditionally vote in heavy numbers.

A poll by Policy Analysis for California Education, a nonpartisan research group, found that senior citizens are almost evenly divided over the voucher concept. Other polls show a sizable percentage of the elderly still not committed to a decision.

Orange County Battleground

In Orange County, the Republican heartland of the state, a poll conducted in late August also depicted a tight race, with 44 percent favoring the initiative and 42 percent opposed. That was in marked contrast with a June poll that showed local voters favoring the proposal by a two-to-one margin. The more recent poll also found opposition strongest among older voters.

Those divisions were evident at a debate held last month by the Orange County Chamber of Commerce and Industry at a luxurious hotel not far from Disneyland. As in Whittier, opinions were mixed and highly personal.

Jo Timmering, a grandmother of eight, says she "absolutely'' supports the initiative.

"Not one of [her grandchildren's] parents wants them to go to a public school,'' she notes, "because they're not safe, they don't learn, and they don't care.''

But Ward Wiseman, a retired physician, acknowledges that he is "very much on the fence.''

"I think the public education system in this country is in trouble, particularly in California,'' he explains. "On the other hand, I went through the public school system myself. I had an excellent education. And I have a great deal of loyalty to it.''

Mr. Wiseman also expresses a concern shared by many of those interviewed--that the initiative would harm disadvantaged children.

The measure would not allow participating schools to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnic group, color, or national origin. But schools could refuse to admit students based on sex, religion, or ability.

Opponents claim the measure would siphon money away from public schools, while leaving them with those who are hardest to educate.

In the PACE poll, 42 percent thought the initiative would help the disadvantaged least. And a majority said students needing the most help would be left behind.

Wooing Inner-City Parents

Supporters of the initiative contend that the vouchers would enable poor families to exercise the same choices now open to everyone else.

They argue that the vouchers, worth at least half the per-pupil cost of public education--currently about $2,500--could cover all or most of the tuition at many existing Catholic and religious schools, or at the small private schools that observers expect to open if the measure passes.

Advocates of Proposition 174 have been working diligently to woo black and Hispanic voters who are disillusioned with inner-city public schools.

Vaughn Street Elementary School lies in a poor, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Located just off a highway, the school is surrounded by a high chain-link fence. In the middle of the afternoon, youngsters play on a metal jungle-gym in a cement courtyard.

The once dysfunctional public school has made a remarkable turnaround in recent years, thanks in large measure to the leadership of a widely respected principal. Brightly painted murals illustrating children's literature cover the walls of the school's breezeway. A family center has a steady stream of parents flowing in and out of its cluttered interior.

Nonetheless, parents talk about the school system in harsh terms. "My anger is that the staff already are assuming that all the kids are going to fail,'' Jorge Lara, a family advocate at the school, says of the teachers and others at the neighboring junior high and high schools that his children attend. "They don't think that you're worth nothing. They think that immediately you're garbage.''

The school system's bureaucrats are "crooks'' who are out to get taxpayers' money and are only minimally interested in children, Mr. Lara charges.

'We Are Divided Already'

Yet, most of the parents interviewed, including those who serve as family advocates, know little or nothing about the voucher initiative. And while some are interested, they are also confused and skeptical about how vouchers would help.

"We are divided as it is already in the United States,'' sighs Mr. Lara. "This is going to be another step to divisionism. It's going to bring us apart, instead of pull us together.''

"To tell the truth, I don't see the advantage of the voucher,'' agrees Hilda Ochoa, a community liaison at the school. "They say parents have more power, but how? Do the parents know the budget of the school? Where the money is going? Do they have a say in discipline? To me, that's power, are parent voices in the school, not $2,500.''

"In our community, there are not very many registered voters,'' she adds. "Those that will vote, they won't vote for something they don't understand. And right now, the voucher has not been explained to any of us--not in my church, not anywhere.''

Although Hispanics account for about 35 percent of public school enrollment in California, they typically constitute only 6 percent of the electorate in off-year elections. Blacks represent 9 percent of public student enrollment and 8 percent of the vote.

'Take a Closer Look'

At Pacific Elementary School in Manhattan Beach, just west of Los Angeles, groups of mostly white children run around on a well-kept grass playing field. The public school in this predominantly white, affluent community perches uphill from a string of trendy shops and restaurants. At the end of the day, parents arrive in late-model cars and vans to pick up their offspring and chat.

Most describe themselves as fortunate to have such an excellent school system. And they have little sympathy for the voucher initiative, although they predict it would least affect districts like theirs, where parents are happy with their schools.

"I think the voucher initiative is death to public schools and actually death to private schools, too,'' says Alisa London, "because anyone who has 25 students can open a school.''

"There're no standards. They don't have to be accredited,'' the mother of three complains. "It takes money away from the public schools, and the public schools can't afford to have any more money taken away.''

Says Colleen Caldwell, a former Catholic schoolteacher: "It sounds like we're supporting, basically, private schools ... and those who can afford to send their kids to private schools are now going to get a discount, and those who can't afford them still can't.''

Ms. Caldwell, who has two children, also predicts the measure would hurt the state fiscally. "Anytime the government does something,'' she argues, "it's going to cost me more money.''

At a Catholic school a block away, though, the sentiment runs the other way. Most of the parents interviewed support Proposition 174 as a "great idea'' that would help low-income parents and children.

"I hate to see anything taken away from the public schools, because I would like to support them,'' says Tania Feneck, who has three children in Catholic schools. "But it might just make the schools take a closer look at what they're doing and how they're doing it.''

Ellen Steinmetz, whose husband works in the hard-pressed aerospace industry, says the voucher would help them personally. In addition, predicts the mother of three, the competition would force public schools to eliminate bureaucracy and "shape up.''

In the end, campaign strategists agree, the outcome will be determined by which side can get more of its committed supporters to the polls. "That's going to be the ultimate question in the whole campaign: who actually votes,'' said Rick Manter, the campaign manager for Citizens Against 174.

'What's the Solution?'

But even if the initiative fails, the concept of school vouchers in California may remain very much alive.

The PACE poll found that Californians support the concept of school vouchers by a two-to-one margin. If given the option, three-fourths would prefer a school-choice plan that includes private schools.

In addition, several of those interviewed who are opposed to Proposition 174 said they could envision the passage of a better-drafted proposal in the future.

"I think maybe 10 years from now, or five years from now, something like Proposition 174 would be successful,'' predicts Mary Joe Habers, a businesswoman who serves on the legislative committee for Pacific Elementary School.

Moreover, the one thing voters seem to agree on is their dismal view of California's public education system and the need for some kind of shake-up.

That frustration is particularly evident in a question posed to voucher opponents by Dale Lash, a parent at the Trinity Lutheran debate. "What do you say to those of us who do not wish to expose our children to the gangs, drugs, and guns that exist in our public schools,'' he asks, "but yet cannot afford to send our children to private schools?

"If you want us to vote against this voucher, what's the solution? What do you have to offer us?''

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