Proponents Optimistic Calif. Choice Initiative Will Be on Fall Ballot

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Supporters of a private-school-voucher initiative in California that observers predict could greatly intensify nationwide debate on the issue say they have gathered enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Organizers of the Parental Choice in Education Initiative had filed petitions in more than 50 of California's 58 counties by late last week. They were expected to submit the remaining petitions in the near future.

Kevin D. Teasley, the campaign's manager, said nearly 1 million signatures would be turned over to the California secretary of state in total--enough, he said, to produce the 615,958 valid signatures of registered voters needed to qualify the measure.

But opponents said it was too close to predict whether the proposal would make it onto the 1992 ballot.

"It's going to be right down to the wire,'' said Bill Honig, the state superintendent of public instruction. "They're turning in these signatures late.''

Secretary of State March Fong Eu had suggested that the sponsors submit their lists of names by April 17 to ensure that they could be verified by June 25, the legal deadline for measures that are to appear on the November ballot.

After names are submitted, county voting officials must select a random sample of signatures and compare them with voter-registration files to assure that they are valid.

"The counties will certainly do everything they can to complete their random sample by the measure-qualification deadline,'' said Melissa Warren, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office. "But the later the signatures come in, the greater is the risk that the counties will not be able to complete that process.''

Whether the measure makes it onto the ballot for this fall will not be known until late June, Ms. Warren said. If the measure qualifies after the close of business on June 25, it will be placed on the 1994 ballot.

A National Issue

If the initiative does qualify for this November's ballot, it promises to set off the most vigorous national debate yet about private-school choice in the United States.

"This is not simply a California issue,'' said James W. Guthrie, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley. "There is a national network [of school-choice advocates] at work here, which is not going to let this die.''

The initiative would change the state constitution to provide vouchers of $2,500 a year to most school-age children in California, beginning in July 1993. Children already enrolled in private schools would receive the scholarships beginning in 1995-96.

The money could be used at any public or private school of a family's choice, including church-sponsored institutions. Public schools could opt to participate in the program.

The proposal has already gained the support of such prominent advocates of private-school choice as Vice President Quayle, former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, and the conservative scholar Thomas Sowell. The Wall Street Journal has also run two editorials endorsing the measure.

Moreover, the sheer size of California's student population makes the initiative's fate a bellwether for the rest of the country. The Golden State now serves one out of eight public-school students nationwide.

'Improve All Schools'?

Supporters of the measure say it would improve all schools, by making them more responsive to parents and students and increasing the array of educational alternatives.

"It's going to change the focus of the schools from the administration's office to the classroom,'' Mr. Teasley predicted.

But foes claim that it would severely damage the state's already overburdened public-school system by siphoning off at least $1.5 billion a year in state aid and sending the money to largely unregulated private schools.

"The initiative is so poorly drawn that I shudder to think of the consequences for education if it is passed in this form,'' Mr. Guthrie said.

As the proposal is now worded, he said, it is hard to estimate its cost or its impact on public-school funding. And its due-process protections for students are unclear.

"What if it's a failure?'' Mr. Guthrie asked. "Then it's locked into the state constitution. Now, how do we get it out of there?''

Participating private schools also would be under no obligation to educate poor or special-needs children.

An earlier draft of the initiative would have increased the size of the scholarships, guaranteed slots to poor students, and barred schools from charging them additional tuition. But those provisions were dropped at the last minute to increase the chances of voter approval.

John E. Coons, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, who helped draft the earlier version, said last week that he was now "ambivalent'' about the proposal.

"The bulk of inner-city kids, it seems to me, are not likely to be greatly advantaged by it,'' he said, "and the public schools will not be threatened by it, because they won't be getting much new competition.''

High-Stakes Campaign

Even before it makes the ballot, the voucher initiative has set off a bitter, high-stakes fight within the state.

A broad-based coalition of nearly 200 business, education, religious, minority, labor, and civil-rights groups, known as the Committee to Educate Against Vouchers, waged an all-out campaign to prevent people from signing the petitions.

Its tactics included stationing "truth teams'' at sites where signature gatherers were present and distributing fliers against the proposal.

Last month, supporters of the initiative won temporary restraining orders against five school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, that it accused of illegally using public resources to fight the voucher campaign.

At least 100 of California's 1,000 school boards have passed resolutions opposing the initiative, Brian Lewis, a spokesman for the California School Boards Association, said.

Opponents of the measure have accused its sponsors of misrepresenting their initiative to the voters.

"This measure is not about choice or true scholarships, as the name implies,'' said Robert E. Wells, the director of governmental relations for the Association of California School Administrators. "Most middle- and lower-income people would not be helped by this measure, and many school districts already provide choice among district schools.''

As late as last week, opponents were urging those who had signed the petitions to rescind their signatures before they were turned in to county registrars' offices.

'Spend What It Takes'

The Committee to Educate Against Vouchers also has pledged to monitor closely the signature-verification process by stationing staff members and volunteers in each registrar's office.

The street-level politicking appears to have been at least partially successful. According to Kelly Kimball, the president of Kimball Petition Management, which was hired to help counter the voucher campaign, paid signature gatherers were being awarded as much as 65 cents a signature--more than double the normal rate.

"It is well known within the signature-gathering industry that the higher the bounty for each signature on a petition, the higher the invalid rate,'' Mr. Kimball said last week.

Mr. Teasley, the manager of the voucher drive, estimated that approximately 70 percent of the signatures were gathered by paid professionals and 30 percent by volunteers.

Opponents have spent some $200,000 to fight the initiative thus far, according to Mr. Wells.

'Most Intense' Campaign

The Parental Choice in Education Initiative has spent between $500,000 and $600,000 on the campaign, Mr. Teasley said. "We'll spend what it takes to get this thing through in November,'' he added.

Mr. Guthrie of Berkeley predicted that if the initiative qualifies for the November ballot, it will produce the "most intense education-issue campaign'' in California history.

"The teachers' unions, particularly, view the stakes as so high that they will virtually take the lids off their treasuries to fight this,'' he said. "I think it not impossible for the spending on this issue to top what is spent for the two U.S. Senate races.''

Sponsors of the initiative had targeted Catholic churches and schools over Easter weekend in a last burst of signature-gathering.

Although the California Catholic Conference has remained neutral on the issue, many bishops and Catholic-school principals and parents are supporting it. Catholic schools enroll some 251,000 California students in grades K-12, according to Joseph P. McElligott, the director of the conference's division of education.

"We may not see a collective statement from the conference,'' even if the measure makes it onto the ballot, he said. "It may go the way of individual schools and parish communities taking their position on the thing.''

Vol. 11, Issue 33, Pages 1, 19

Published in Print: May 6, 1992, as Proponents Optimistic Calif. Choice Initiative Will Be on Fall Ballot
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