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Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as Calif. Voucher Opponents Organizing To Fight Initiative

Calif. Voucher Opponents Organizing To Fight Initiative

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California voucher opponents are mobilizing their resources to fight a Silicon Valley businessman with deep pockets, following a recent announcement that a proposal to give parents $4,000 a year for nonpublic school tuition will be on the statewide ballot in November.

Backers of the School Vouchers 2000 initiative, including chief sponsor Timothy C. Draper, say they submitted approximately 1.2 million signatures to the secretary of state's office—almost twice the 670,000 signatures required to qualify the measure for a vote by Californians on Nov. 7. The citizens' initiative was officially certified for the ballot on June 20.

Mr. Draper, who heads the Redwood City, Calif.-based venture-capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, has said that he will spend up to $20 million of his own money to promote the measure.

The plan's detractors, including Gov. Gray Davis and the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, have pledged to undertake a well-financed opposition campaign. Gov. Davis, a Democrat, said recently that he would do whatever was necessary to help defeat the plan, which he says would siphon much-needed funds from public schools.

"California schools are showing improvement for the first time in a very long time," Mr. Davis said during a press briefing last month. "At a time like this, the last thing we should be doing is draining public tax dollars away from public education to subsidize private education."

This fall will not be the first time Californians have entertained the possibility of school vouchers. In 1993, voters rejected, by a seven-to-three margin, a ballot measure that proposed providing parents with a tax-funded voucher, then worth about $2,500 per child, to spend at any participating public, private, or parochial school. ("Novel Voucher Plan Suffers Resounding Defeat in California," Nov. 10, 1993).

Cost Estimates Debated

This year's initiative—unlike existing voucher programs elsewhere that are based on a student's financial need or the performance of his or her school—would provide $4,000 grants to all parents whose children are currently enrolled in public school, or who are entering kindergarten starting in the 2001-02 school year. The grants could be used to pay tuition at any private school in the state, including those with religious affiliations. Grants to parents whose children are already enrolled in private schools, including religious schools, would be phased in over three years.

The state spends an average of roughly $7,000 per pupil. Supporters of the initiative argue that it would actually increase per-pupil spending in public schools because only $4,000 of that money would go to voucher parents, while the remaining $3,000 would stay in the public schools.

In a preliminary estimate, the state legislative analyst's office said that the measure would initially cost the state anywhere from $150 million to more than $600 million a year, but could save the state roughly $2.5 billion annually over the long term, depending on how many students opted out of the public schools. The fiscal 2001 state budget includes approximately $38.6 billion for K-12 schools.

But opponents argue that the measure is misleading. They contend that if the state were to give private school grants to all interested parents, nonpublic schools could not accommodate many new students. "To argue that massive numbers of students could transfer immediately to a private or parochial school in California is a bill of goods," said Garry South, a senior political adviser to the governor.

Christopher J. Bertelli, a spokesman for the School Vouchers 2000 campaign, counters that if the initiative passes, the supply of slots in private schools will eventually catch up with the demand for them.

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 26

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