Professors Craft Model Ballot Initiative To Promote Choice

By Lynn Olson — June 17, 1992 5 min read

Two law professors at the University of California at Berkeley have drafted a model plan for providing school choice that would benefit low-income children, in particular, in the form of a statewide ballot initiative.

The proposal by John E. Coons and Stephen D. Sugarman, two strong proponents of choice, is contained in a monograph released last month entitled Scholarships for Children.

The authors said they wrote the book because an “allergy to specifics’’ about how choice might be carried out has “affected the quality of policy debate in a negative way.’'

“It is not nearly enough to favor or oppose ‘choice’ in the abstract,’' the authors write. “Now, more than ever, friends and foes of choice must be clear about the plan they are promoting or attacking.’'

They note that “ill-conceived particulars’’ in previous proposals have caused them to be “reluctantly opposed by many natural supporters.’' Such problems, they suggest, “could have been corrected in a more deliberative drafting process.’'

‘Tilted’ Toward the Poor

The “Scholarship Initiative’’ they advocate is cast in the form of a state constitutional amendment to be approved by voters at the ballot box.

According to its authors, any responsible system of choice must include three “fundamental’’ commitments, the absence of any one of which is “fatal.’'

The three policy commitments would “tilt’’ the system toward the poor to ensure them fair access to the schools they prefer; subsidize choices for families in both public and private schools; and protect both public and private schools of choice from regulation “in a manner that preserves their identity and the autonomy of their operations.’'

Their hypothetical initiative differs from existing proposals in several ways. One of the most obvious is in the size of the scholarship itself.

Under their proposal, the average scholarship would be worth about 90 percent of the cost of educating a student in the public schools. The value of the scholarship would be increased still further for disabled children. And, for low-income children, it would include the cost of “reasonable transportation.’'

Most existing proposals limit private-school vouchers to about half the cost of public-school education. The authors argue that such scholarships primarily benefit families who can afford to supplement them, and are of limited help to poor students.

In addition, they argue, if the scholarships are not large enough to finance a school by themselves, they are unlikely to spur the creation of new schools, except in middle-class neighborhoods where parents can add to the scholarship’s value.

Admissions Preference

Several other provisions further tilt the model initiative toward students from the poorest families.

For example, only children of the poor would be eligible for scholarships in the first four years of the program. In addition, new public and private “scholarship schools’’ envisioned under the plan would be required to reserve 20 percent of new admissions for low-income applicants if that many applied.

“Without giving the poor this protection we fear that, for a variety of reasons, they will too often lose out to nonpoor children in the competition for places in popular schools,’' the authors write.

Finally, the initiative would permit scholarship schools to charge beyond the scholarship, but only for nonpoor families and only according to their capacity to pay.

Otherwise, the authors argue, scholarship schools could set their tuition at any level they chose and price poor families out of the market. “Our insistence upon this protection for the poor,’' they write, “puts us at odds with some supporters of school vouchers.’'

Their plan differs sharply from the current school-choice ballot initiative in California, which they initially helped draft.

As it is now crafted, that measure would set scholarships at less than half the average public-school expenditure per student. It also has no enrollment protections for low-income families, would allow private schools to charge what they please, would not require that low-income families be assisted with transportation or that the size of the scholarships be increased for handicapped students, and would give poor families no time to try out the scheme before everyone else is allowed to join.

“This all leaves us ambivalent,’' the authors conclude, although they say it would probably be preferable to no proposal at all.

Four Types of Schools

To preserve maximum autonomy for and participation by private and public schools, the authors propose creating four categories of schools.

In addition to existing public and private schools, the other two categories would be private scholarship schools and public scholarship schools.

Traditional private schools could choose to remain as they are and redeem scholarships only for low-income children. Or they could choose to become private scholarship schools and be subject to the kinds of minimal regulations described by the authors, designed to ensure that poor children have fair access.

The big advantage of private scholarship schools would be that they could redeem scholarships from all their pupils.

Public schools that chose to become scholarship schools would be dramatically deregulated. School districts, community colleges, public universities, cities, and counties could establish such schools.

Each would be a public nonprofit corporation, governed by rules fixed by the organizing body at the time of incorporation. Beyond that, they would operate according to laws no more restrictive than those affecting private scholarship schools.

All public schools would have to open empty slots to children regardless of residence, the authors write, “with reasonable preference given to low-income children.’' They also would have to rent empty space to scholarship schools at actual cost.

Copies of the book are available for $7.95 each from the Institute of Governmental Studies, 102 Moses Hall, University of California, Berkeley, Calif. 94720. Orders under $30 must be prepaid, with checks payable to The Regents of the University of California. Add 20 percent for handling and shipping.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as Professors Craft Model Ballot Initiative To Promote Choice