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Coons and Sugarman's "Family Choice Initiative," as it was called, was hotly debated in late 1979 and early 1980. As could have been predicted, the state's educational establishment was bitterly opposed. Wilson Riles, then the state superintendent of public instruction, stormed, "The idea is crazy....1 see chaos [if it passes]." In the face of this opposition, the initiative was unable to gather sufficient signatures for ballot status.
An interesting coalition of liberal and conservative Californians believe the time may now be ripe for another attempt at the ballot box. Roger Magyar, a Republican Party activist and state official during Reagan's administration in Sacramento, and Leroy Chatfield, a former United Farm Workers organizer and the manager of Jerry Brown's 1976 presidential campaign, have put together an organization called Parents Choose Quality Education. Their voucher plan has won the endorsement of Milton Friedman, and they hope to win sufficient signatures for placement on the June '84 primary ballot.
There has been a dramatic increase in popular support for vouchers in the last few years. Indeed, 1983 was the first year in which a majority of Americans in a national survey expressed support for education vouchers. A Gallup Poll conducted last June indicated that 51 percent of Americans would like to see a voucher system adopted in this country; 38 percent would not, and 11 percent had no opinion. The favorable responses were up from 43 percent in 1981 and 38 percent in 1971.
The youngest group surveyed-people 18-29 years old- were most in favor of vouchers (60 percent for, 29 percent against, 11 percent no opinion). And blacks at the grassroots level are even stronger in their support (64 percent for, 23 percent against, 13 percent no opinion). Yet many veteran civil rights leaders are adamantly hostile, because a variant of vouchers was briefly used in the South by local school boards and state governments during the 1950s to try to stave off school integration.
Likewise, despite the strong support among Catholics for vouchers (63 percent for, 29 percent against, 8 percent no opinion)-not to mention the fact that some 3 million youngsters are attending Catholic schools in 1983-84-the US Catholic Conference has never taken a public stand for vouchers. Individual priests and bishops have supported the idea, but they have no solid institutional backing.
Roger Magyar told Reason that in California, church officials are apprehensive that a voucher system might exclude parochial schools, either from the beginning or later at the behest of a court ruling. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is against vouchers for the opposite reason: it's worried that a voucher system would include parochial schools. Burt Neuborne, legal director of the ACLU, told Reason that the organization is opposed to vouchers on Establishment Clause grounds (the constitutional provision that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion").
The irony here is that civil libertarians should be a natural constituency for vouchers. After all, government-run schools routinely trample on the civil liberties of families who disagree with the way their children are educated.
Clearly, the popular support for vouchers in this country has survived and prospered without nurturing by the political establishment. One can only conclude that parents' alienation from the current state monopoly in education is very strong indeed. So while economists propose and teachers unions dispose, the mass of parents out there may well come to consider education vouchers as natural as generations of smalltown Vermonters have found them.
John McClaughry, formerly a senior policy advisor in the Reagan White House, went home to Vermont in 1982, where he runs the Institute for Liberty and Community "way back in the woods." This article is a project of the Reason Foundation Investigative Journalism Fund.