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Novel Voucher Plan Suffers Resounding Defeat in California

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In a stinging setback for private-school-choice advocates nationwide, California voters last week rejected the nation's most ambitious school-voucher initiative by a seven-to-three margin.

The fight over school vouchers is far from finished, however. The same day that California's Proposition 174 went down, voters in New Jersey and Virginia elected Republican gubernatorial candidates who have backed the school-voucher concept. (See story, page 17.)

Proposition 174 would have given parents a tax-funded voucher--worth about $2,500 per child in 1994-95--to spend at any participating public, private, or parochial school.

The overwhelming defeat marked the third straight loss for voucher proponents at the polls. Voucher referendums were defeated in Colorado in 1992 and in Oregon in 1990, both by two-to-one margins.

"We believe the size of the 'no' vote reflects an abiding faith in the ideals and the purposes of public education,'' said Del Weber, the president of the California Teachers Association, "and we are encouraged by that expression of support for free and universal public schooling.''

The C.T.A., by far the most formidable opponent of the measure, contributed at least $10 million of the approximately $16 million spent on the anti-voucher campaign, he said.

Backers of the California initiative have already pledged to repackage it for the 1994 or 1996 ballot. Voucher bills that include private schools are also expected to surface in at least a dozen states this year.

"The California initiative will be the last time school choice will be fought on a single battlefield,'' predicted Jill Hanson, the executive director of Americans for School Choice, a new group formed to back grassroots choice campaigns.

'Too Radical a Transformation'

Voucher proponents last week blamed their defeat almost entirely on funding. The Yes on 174 campaign raised only $2.7 million, according to a spokesman, Sean Walsh.

But others attributed the defeat to a combination of factors. These included the initiative's up-front added cost of more than $1 billion to provide vouchers for students already enrolled in private schools; the opposition of a Republican Governor and prominent business leaders; and the widespread fear that the measure would raise state taxes and decimate public school finances. (See Education Week, Oct. 20, 1993.)

In addition, polls showed that voters were wary of providing public funding for private schools with minimal public accountability.

"These wide-open voucher programs are probably too radical a transformation at this point,'' said John F. Witte, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

But, he added, "I don't think the California thing should be read in too serious a manner ... You had a situation of gross fiscal uncertainty in a place where they're hurting terribly for money, and so it didn't get passed.''

Many national education groups seized on the overwhelming rejection of Proposition 174 as a referendum on the future of private school choice nationwide.

But despite the loss, the voucher movement continues to pick up steam around the country. "I'm estimating that there will be a dozen states that have voucher bills in their legislatures in 1994,'' said Connie L. Koprowicz, an education-policy associate for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And Americans for School Choice has pledged to build organizations in at least 25 states by the end of 1994, and to organize successful ballot initiatives in five states next year and an added eight states for 1996. Last week, Gov. Ann Richards of Texas said she is willing to support a pilot school-voucher plan for poor families.

Some Californians are also warning public educators not to be too ebullient about last week's victory.

On the morning of the election, Gov. Pete Wilson called a press conference to unveil a five-point plan for improving education in the Golden State. The move was seen in part as an effort by Mr. Wilson, who was criticized by some of his fellow Republicans for opposing the initiative, to acknowledge voters' deep dissatisfaction with the public schools.

A poll released last month by Policy Analysis for California Education found that 61 percent of Californians would like to see a major overhaul of public education. They also supported the concept of school vouchers by a two-to-one margin.

"If members of the education groups start declaring victory and saying the result of the election means the public is satisfied, then the situation could get worse rather than better,'' warned Julia Koppich, the deputy director of PACE. "We're convinced that what is needed is a very substantive and a very public reform effort that involves not only education groups, but business and foundation officials and policymakers.''

Other Initiatives

Voters last week also decided several other ballot initiatives affecting education. (See Education Week, Oct. 27, 1993.)

California voters rejected a proposition that would have made it easier for school districts to pass school-construction bond measures. Proposition 170 would have allowed voters to approve such bond issues by a simple majority, rather than the two-thirds vote now required.

Californians approved, however, a measure making permanent a temporary half-cent sales tax for use by city and county governments.

A similar mixed message came from Washington State, where voters defeated an initiative that would have limited state spending and rolled back $1 billion in state taxes enacted this year. But they approved a separate measure that limits future taxes and spending to the rate of inflation and population growth.

Texans passed a measure to require voter approval for any state income tax. The proposal also mandates that revenues raised by an income tax be dedicated to property-tax relief and funding for public education.

Voters in New York State approved a measure giving local governments, including districts, greater flexibility in taking on and repaying bonded indebtedness.

Oregonians vote this week on creation of a 5 percent sales tax earmarked for education.

Staff Writer Mark Walsh also contributed to this report.

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