Tough Sell

School choice update

At the request of 50 desperate parents in Compton, California Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-66th District) has introduced a limited school-choice bill. Any child within the Compton school district eligible for the free lunch program -- that is, 99.9 percent of students -- would be able to participate. Participating private schools would be required to use standardized tests to evaluate student performance.

If there was ever a district that needed change, it's Compton. The school system is notorious for its financial and academic bankruptcy. In 1993, the district had a $20 million budget shortfall that led to a 10-year takeover by the California Department of Education. But the state did little better by Compton kids, going through five different superintendents and eventually returning some financial control to the district, without ever improving academic performance. In the last two years some Compton schools have made modest gains, but more than 75 percent were still rated "well below average" in overall test-score performance.

Nevertheless, Haynes' bill faces stiff opposition from teachers unions, People for the American Way, Compton Superintendent Jesse Gonzales, and Mervyn Dymally, the Democratic assemblyman who represents Compton, along with most other Democratic legislators. Haynes, whose district is in Orange County, told the Los Angeles Times that it would be very difficult to push the bill through the legislature and to get Gov. Davis' signature. He plans to wait until the 2004-05 session for an actual vote, to allow time to build more support. According to the Times, he told the Compton parents that they'd need to build their group of 50 out to "something more like 10,000" for the bill to succeed.

In other voucher news, the Colorado state senate passed a pilot bill that, when signed, will mark the first voucher plan enacted since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark school-choice decision last year. (The Supremes upheld a voucher program in Cleveland that allowed students to use state funds for both private and parochial schools.) The Colorado plan is limited to struggling, low-income students in low-achieving school districts. Texas is vying to be the third state (after Florida and potentially Colorado) to offer a statewide voucher program. Under the Lone Star plan, vouchers would initially be available only to low-income students in 11 urban districts.

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