Ballot Initiative on 'Choice' in Oregon Holds Narrow Lead as Election Nears

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Oregon's closely watched "choice" initiative, which would mandate public-school open enrollment and a $2,500 tax credit for private schooling, appears to be holding a small lead going into the final month before the election.

The ballot proposal garnered more petition signatures than any other question facing Oregon voters on Nov. 6, and in a recent newspaper poll was slightly ahead with only a small percentage of the state's voters still undecided.

But political analysts predict that the slim margin of support for the proposal, known as Measure 11, could disappear once opponents--led by the powerful Oregon Education Association--begin to bring it under concerted attack.

"The big guns have not been fired yet," said Representative Bob Pickard, the Republican vice chairman of the House Education Committee. ''The money from the education establishment has not hit the media yet. They make or break races in this state."

Mr. Pickard and other observers said they saw a number of potentially vulnerable points in Measure 11 that, if vigorously exploited by the state's major education groups, could dramatically lengthen the odds against it.

If it does pass, however, Measure 11 will become the most extensive state program of private-school choice in the nation. The state income-tax credit of up to $2,500 it would provide to parents who choose private, religious, or home schooling would be considerably more generous than the program in effect in Minnesota, which offers a tax deduction of up to $1,000 for private-school expenses.

The Oregon initiative would also prohibit lawmakers from passing new regulations on private or home schooling, now largely unregulated in the state, without voter approval.

The state supreme court late last month ensured that Measure 11 and several other initiatives would be on the ballot, overturning a circuit-court judge's ruling that the proposals were invalid because they did not include required financial-impact statements. (See Education Week, Oct. 3, 1990.)

Tapping Voter Frustration

Sponsors of Measure 11, who include prominent members of the state's Libertarian Party, say the key to victory is tapping into Oregonians' frustration with the state's public education system.

"It's still a relatively new item for voters," said Ed Marihart, a coordinator for Oregonians for Educational Choice, the group that led the petition drive. "Most parents want to send their children to public schools, but they want them to work. The only way to make improvements is by putting parents more in control of the education dollars. We feel like this is the way to turn the system upside down."

Daniel L. Teall, an Elmira high-school teacher and a school-board member in the neighboring Junction City district, said the initiative also was likely to win support from educators fed up with the education bureaucracy, which he said was leading the opposition to Measure 11.

"I think it's mostly the leadership of the education groups and not the rank and file" opposing the school-choice referendum, he said. "Outside of education, I have never spoken to one person yet that's not for it, but educators are holding back."

"From my own perspective, I see it as the only rational method of changing the bureaucratic snarl that we've got education presently in," Mr. Teall added.

The majority of his fellow school-board members also are favoring Measure 11, noted Mr. Teall, whose 10-year-old child is being taught at home.

Backers of Measure 11 also have aligned themselves with a ballot initiative aimed at limiting property taxes, which in Oregon provide some 60 percent of school funding.

Attacking the 'Fine Print'

Opponents are expected to focus their fire on the "fine print" of Measure 11, which they say has won support so far based on a broad-brush understanding of its open-enrollment theme.

"I think it has quite a bit of superficial appeal and it depends on the degree to which people dig in and study this thing," observed Lee Penny, administrator of the legislature's joint interim committee on education.

Representative Ted Calouri said that as he attends speaking engagements and works on his own re-election campaign, he is finding that the wheels may already be coming off Measure 11's support.

"My sense is that it's turning real quickly to people viewing it in a negative way," said Mr. Calouri, vice chairman of the House Revenue and School Finance Committee. He said that as voters learn of Measure 11's provisions allowing state funds to indirectly go to religious and private schools, they are re-evaluating their support.

"They are not looking at it anymore as, 'Wouldn't it be nice to put some competition into the schools and get them to sharpen their offerings,"' he said. "People are catching on pretty quickly."

"This thing would probably create more havoc than it would positive effects," said Representative Pickard, a former teacher, administrator, and school-board member. "It's like using an ax when you should be doing surgery."

Attack on Several Fronts

The oea, meanwhile, is attacking Measure 11 on several fronts.

While officials would not say how much they were spending in oppos8ing Measure 11, the teachers' union has provided $5,000 to organize Oregonians for Public Education and Religious Liberty and pledged $5,000 more, said Jan Coulton, the coalition's campaign coordinator.

Karen Famous, president of the oea, said she was also seeking financial support from the National Education Association.

Ms. Famous said the union was sending regular mailings to its members on the school-choice initiative and would organize door-to-door canvassing across the state on Oct. 27 and Nov. 3.

As the election nears, Ms. Famous explained, opponents will stress the consequences of the measure's open-enrollment provisions, which would allow state aid to follow students who transferred to new districts, as well as of its private-school aid.

"We need to educate people that losing 20 students does not mean the school loses a custodian or cuts bus routes," she argued. "Costs are not directly proportional to the number of students."

Schools for Skinheads?

Ms. Famous also warned that the proposal's combination of private-school aid and curbs on new state regulations would create consequences unintended by many voters. "Anybody could offer schools for anything, whether it be skinheads or religious sects, without certified teachers," she warned.

"We really do favor choice, and I would favor some more flexibility between districts than we have now," the union leader continued. "But this goes so far beyond that, that I can't support any part of it."

One thing that makes it difficult to predict the fate of Measure 11 is the fact that it will be on a ballot crowded with other highly contested and emotional issues that have overshadowed it in the minds of most voters.

"It is interesting that it has gotten national exposure, and we hear how other states are watching it, but it isn't the hottest issue by a long shot as far as Oregonians are concerned," said Representative Peter Courtney. In addition to a gubernatorial race, voters will be asked to decide two abortion questions and vote on initiatives on a nuclear-power plant, recycling, and property taxes.

"This one is kind of a sleeper because on the surface it sounds so simple," Ms. Coulton said. "We seem to be able to change people's minds when we talk about it, but people have not paid that much attention to it yet."

While Representative Pickard believes Measure 11 faces an uphill battle, he is not yet ready to predict its defeat.

"The stimulating effect would be the message that we can't continue to do things the same as we have," he said. "If it wins, it will be a real indictment of what we are doing with kids."

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