"Think of it as the Thirty Years' War," says Oregon's Martin Buchanan of the national fight for school choice. And there is more than a durational likeness to Europe's 17th-century sectarian conflict. The public schools are America's official religion, an obligatory presence in every burg and hamlet. Attacks on them will be repulsed with heavy casualties, as Buchanan, a Portland-based writer of computer manuals, knows. The first statewide voucher initiative he drafted lost by more than 2-to-1 at the polls in 1990, and he is fatalistic about the second try, due next year.
Fatalism is also a good attitude to have about the choice initiative on California's November 2 special-election ballot. The most prominent attempt yet to allocate tax money to households instead of school districts so that everyone can enjoy reasonable alternatives to the government's Brand X, Proposition 174 is under withering bombardment from the education establishment. Early polls were favorable, but a mid-August Field poll found the initiative opposed by a 46-36 plurality. And the history of these initiatives—indeed, of citizen-placed ballot measures generally—is that they succumb to landslides once the other side unleashes its counterattack.
The school-choice movement has never won an election. It has scored victories—the state of Wisconsin agreed to let parents in some poor parts of Milwaukee choose private schools, and variations of choice among public schools are gaining approval around the country—but never a straight-out endorsement at the polls. The only thing close to a win for private schools—a 54-percent-to-46-percent OK for textbook loans in heavily Lutheran South Dakota in 1986—is set off against 19 losses, most of them lopsided, since 1966.
Most of these were forms of "parochiaid," a stopgap for keeping strapped religious schools from folding. Some opponents of choice, still obsessing on the religious question, see the current-generation proposals in the same light. But in fact they have a far more secular origin. An amalgam of libertarians, neoconservatives, business executives—and, yes, some church-school partisans, though they've rarely been leaders—has sought to challenge the ideological and pedagogical orientations of contemporary public schools.
Intellectual and political stirrings that go back to the school-prayer decision and the fights over busing, sex education, phonics, and the "3-Rs" underlie the confrontation in California. They have been given a cutting edge by concern about guns and gangs, condoms and bilingualism, and hard-sell "political correctness" on other classroom fronts, ranging from recycling to the rainbow of diversity. Through it all, the battle for the schools and now for choice has been for the prerogatives of parents and against progressivism, credentialism, teacher unionism, administrative bloat, and, ultimately, declining academic results. The original grassroots right has been supplemented by William Bennett and Jack Kemp and some prominent fellows at the Hoover Institution, for whom a change in the centralized, bureaucratic system has both social and economic significance. They know that a victory for radical change in the nation's largest state would have stunning effect.
Even with this heady heritage, California voucher proponents have carried only a grim optimism into the fall campaign. The recent plebiscites have been so discouraging—the Oregon loss and a similar setback in Colorado in 1992—that trepidation is in order. But win or lose, the issue isn't going away, and it clearly is preoccupying the other side, the education apparatus at every level.
The education establishment has begun to make concessions, the foremost being "charter schools," or independently run campuses within a district. Choice among public schools, at least within a district, is nearly a reflexive concession. Unionized teachers may even consent to giving principals authority at ordinary schools. Like Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist candidate for president in the first half of this century, choice is losing elections but advancing an agenda.
The California fight is paradigmatic of what voucher supporters can expect. The campaign was moved up to this fall by Gov. Pete Wilson, who called a special election on ballot measures, including one he is sponsoring that would raise sales taxes to benefit local governments. The governor has no use for the California Teachers Association but, like most of his big-business backers, he considers the school-choice measure a piping hot potato, one he would probably prefer to have off the political plate before running for re-election in a year.
Architects of Prop. 174 were caught underfunded for the early election, even though they had originally sought a November 1992 ballot placement. By early August, they'd raised only $1 million of the $5 million they had projected. The teachers unions, state and national, were in a position to outspend them by several times.
A half dozen entrepreneurial executives, including Joseph Alibrandi of Whittaker Corp., the motivating force behind the initiative, supplied most of the early capital. The biggest donor, through a corporate veil, has been Howard Ahmanson Jr., son of the late chairman of Home Savings of America and in recent years a major bankroller of conservative legislative candidates.
But another kind of supporter is Safi Qureshey, founding CEO of AST Research, now one of America's biggest personal-computer makers. Pakistani-born Qureshey believes there's "got to be minority community support" for the idea to have merit. Learning of the struggles of Polly Williams, the Afrocentrist who won a place for choice in Milwaukee, convinced him there was. His own family's experience confirmed his despair about the existing system even in the upscale community of Irvine, where he lives: When a son wanted to try a nearby public school, his parents agreed but soon found he was drifting academically; the Quresheys quickly put him back in private school.
At one point, before the Qureshey children accompanied their parents on a week-long trip, the family inquired about what homework might be taken along. The public school, says the AST chief, was interested only in getting him to sign a document that would maintain its attendance capitation from the state. "This system is incentivized in the wrong way," he says.
Outside of this early handful of business backers, the corporate community has been standoffish. This surprised and disappointed Alibrandi, who spoke last year of the encouragement he was getting from major executives he thought would be behind him in the clutch. Instead, when a few months ago he addressed the California Business Roundtable (whose school-reform panel he had chaired prior to launching the voucher drive), they nodded their heads as he made the case for competition and then voted to stay neutral. Same with the California Manufacturers Association.
For some, the latest promise to remake the public schools is always sufficient to merit a few more years' grace. Business leaders want to appear to be good citizens and community leaders. For others, fear of controversy or worse is the prime consideration. "There's such a tremendously powerful grip that the unions and the bureaucracy have on the legislature," says Alibrandi, that executives are "reluctant to put their companies in a position" where they might be punished for an association with the initiative.
That hesitance extends to otherwise bold academics. Guilbert Hentschke, dean of the University of Southern California's School of Education, asked Alibrandi to take his name off letterhead for the initiative campaign after "all hell broke loose." Educationists made clear that the school risked losing grants from public agencies over which they held sway because of the dean's overt sympathies.
Hentschke says he is interested in a range of options for "private provision of public services" but that "in these days of emotion, the fine points of a position get lost entirely." Nevertheless, he continues to meet with nearly 50 school superintendents in the state who share his interests, although in some cases their fascination with "private provision" extends only to seeking leverage in bargaining with their employees.
The Prop. 174 campaign got a boost when Ken Khachigian, a veteran of successful Republican campaigns who just missed last November with Bruce Herschensohn's Senate candidacy in California, signed on as chief strategist. This reassured some skeptics that the effort would not be "amateur hour," but statewide political figures, such as Gov. Wilson, remained opposed or distant. Tom Campbell, a former GOP congressman and Herschensohn's bitter primary rival in 1992, initially endorsed the measure and then danced away from it as he campaigned for a legislative vacancy and weighed a challenge to Wilson next year. (Campbell cited new fiscal considerations stemming from a reinterpretation of when the voucher would kick in. But his switch to opposition led Milton Friedman, one of his mentors and a choice enthusiast, to divorce himself publicly from Campbell's political bid.)
What might be more surprising than the disengagement of prominent figures is the silence or even criticism from private-school groups. The California Association of Independent Schools, its tone set by the blueblood academies, opposes Prop. 174, saying it favors "choice" but not at the expense of public schools (whatever that means), and besides, the $2,600 voucher the plan entails wouldn't pay the bill at their schools and they are full anyway. The largest body of Christian schools is merely "watching" the fight, and the Catholic schools are being discreet. So, although many private schools have permitted initiative sponsors to reach parents under their auspices, they do not promise to deliver legions to the polls. Half a million youngsters attend private schools in California.
In its objections, the private-school hierarchy seems as oblivious as many others to the kind of innovative teaching situations that might be created out of sheer energy in empty offices or commercial structures once a meaningful mass-consumer market existed. Supporters of Prop. 174 argue that 70 percent of California's existing private schools charge less than the voucher amount, although most of those are run by Catholic dioceses.
Thomas Tancredo, who is about to undertake his second Colorado voucher campaign, bluntly says, "Private schools are just as afraid of competition as the public schools. That's an important thing for people doing this to realize. [Established academies] have pretty much a lock on this. They have a couple of hundred kids on a waiting list."
An easier-to-swallow protest from some private-school friends is that state regulation inevitably will follow the vouchers. Llewellyn Rockwell, head of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, used a Sunday op-ed space in the Los Angeles Times to vent this and other fears from the right, opening up a second front against the initiative. Drafters of Prop. 174 included language intended to block additional encroachment by the state, but as Rockwell drummed home, courts could use other passages to gain leverage. Still, private schools would always have the option of refusing vouchers and, presumably, whatever baggage comes with them.
Another battle in the choice war is for the moral high ground that comes with support from inner-city residents. After all, it is their schools that are teaching the least, and it is that failure that most endangers the larger community. That can be sensed idealistically, as AST's Qureshey does, or strictly on pragmatic grounds. But support for choice from those with the most directly at stake has been spotty. Polly Williams has been unusual among prominent minority voices and was ostracized by liberal Democrats for her apostasy. Roy Innis of CORE is another backer, but he has long been dismissed as a civil-rights maverick.
This suggests a disconnect from constituent interests. Although the voting outcome in Oregon in 1990 didn't confirm this, polling has suggested that voucher plans are particularly liked in low-income areas. Yet, just as with so many other "empowerment" ideas that involve the marketplace, this one offends the poverty warlords. Tancredo found this out in Colorado in 1992; the Black Ministerial Alliance, he says, was put off by a visit from Williams.
In California, too, nearly all minority politicians are part of the statist claque—led by black Assembly Speaker Willie Brown—of which the 235,000-member teachers union is the leading fund raiser and water carrier. Teachers are blessed with considerable spare time, some of it on the taxpayers' dime (see memo on next page), to conduct their political activities, and they are a fearsome force. Aligned with administrators and PTAs, as they are in this struggle, they can be overwhelming at the grass roots in a small community and buy plenty of media time in a larger one.
They don't always have to spend millions to win statewide, however. Backers of the Oregon initiative in 1990 actually had a fund-raising advantage, because the teachers were fixated on a tax-cutting measure that same year. (The anti-choice side still managed to worm some free air time for TV commercials.) The Oregon choice crew, and Colorado's in 1992, drew on the deep pockets of free-market enthusiasts nationwide, especially Jerry Hume, head of Basic American Foods, a San Francisco-based institutional supplier.
Hume, however, is "on the sidelines" for the big ballgame in his own state. The new trustee of the Heritage Foundation is concentrating on mustering congressional support for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, promoted by former Bennett deputy Chester Finn as a way to measure honestly the relative performance of U.S. youngsters. Without such a standard, says Hume, school districts will enjoy a "Lake Woebegone effect" (uniformly exceptional children), and parents won't be able to ascertain that their schools are failing to make graduates internationally competitive. They therefore won't be very receptive to radical alternatives such as choice vouchers.
Mindful of the many pitfalls that await any legislative or referendum campaign for choice, some sympathizers set up a national nerve center for the movement in Chicago this summer. Provisionally called the American Alliance for Better Schools, its mission is to advise and alert state and local activists so they won't be the second or third group to learn some painful lesson. Temporarily headed by Doreen Torgerson, a choice advocate in the Lamar Alexander term at the Education Department, it has seed money from Everett Berg, another San Francisco Bay area businessman and co-chair of the Prop. 174 campaign. Torgerson advises proponents to "be careful, and look at how far we can go with the coalition we need to win."
Beyond that caution, it is difficult to draw too many general lessons from past attempts. The issues have been rather different in each case. In Oregon, home schooling became a big deal, with fears raised that parents would simply pocket the money and cheat their kids. (The option isn't included in Martin Buchanan's new version.) In Colorado, few cared about that. Similarly, the prospect of zealotry being taught in "cult" schools had little salience in the Rocky Mountain state, whereas in Oregon, which had suffered the Rajneesh commune, it did. The idea of tax dollars promoting born-again Christianity, or any promulgation of creationism, is quick to raise hackles in secular metropolitan areas, and in Oregon the image blends unhelpfully with the agenda of the Citizens Alliance, which pushes anti-homosexual laws. Again, in Colorado, no big deal.
What did hurt in Colorado, according to post-election polling, were economic arguments: The measure would damage public schools (which bathed in a 60-percent favorable rating) and would hurt the poor to feed the rich. In fact, the $2,500 voucher was attacked as too small to help a struggling family and therefore only pocketable by the wealthy who already had kids in private schools. Early soundings indicated this would also be a primary attack line in California, abetted by wording in Prop. 174 that throws the voucher open to existing private-school students within two years and, by some appraisals, therefore threatens a massive run on public-school coffers.
Similar damage was done in 1990 in Oregon. To get around that in 1994, sponsors there plan to call the next voucher a "scholarship" instead of a "refundable tax credit" and to up the amount to 60 percent of per-pupil expenditures in public schools, from 50 percent last time. Further, the benefits for those already paying private-school tuition would have a measured phase-in so as to avoid the chance of draining public schools.
Clearly, the voters are of two minds about helping the poor. They seem deeply skeptical that a general voucher can do the job, because they think it's unlikely schools will form to meet the created demand. Yet, choice backers observe, a less voiced but widely felt apprehension is that the option indeed will permit youths from low-income areas to penetrate the barriers of affluence. Tancredo, a Reagan-Bush regional officer of the Department of Education and now president of Denver's Independence Institute, says that when his pollsters raised the issue of vouchers "exporting inner-city problems" to safer areas, the response "went through the roof."
Residential economics explains this intensity of feeling. In many otherwise unremarkable settings, swank neighborhoods grow up around nothing more than an exclusivity compact, price being the neutral and (usually, to date) legal method of excluding undesirables. Enrollment at the local public schools is often the key barometer of how well the selectivity is faring.
As it happens, the "integration" of such bastions is probably a more likely scenario under a purely public-school choice plan (which is why we're unlikely to see many across entire metropolitan areas). Private-school choice would encourage the formation of decent schools near where the poor live, in order to capture the market. But that doesn't keep the specter from rising with each campaign, usually spreading by word of mouth. The formal opponents, as good political liberals, would be ashamed to air such base thoughts. (In California, the Mises Institute's Rockwell did it for them.)
Strategist Khachigian, instinctively moving to shore up his base, says he plans to make the left-liberalism of the educationist crowd an issue, stressing to the GOP bedrock constituency that "the anti-choice forces are the most anti-Republican people in the state." He expresses hope that the teachers union, in its fervor to defeat Prop. 174, will overreach with wild charges that won't ring true.
"I have a lot of arrows in my quiver," Khachigian promises, and he will need them. But in late summer, he is upbeat: "If this were a normal campaign, I'd be pretty pessimistic, but I'm not. Khachigian maintains that with only a handful of items on the ballot, the voucher initiative will get more than the customary once-over from voters and the blasts from the opposition will therefore not do their customary lasting damage.
Well, maybe. Maybe the manifest failure of the Los Angeles Unified School District, second largest in the nation, will sour voters there on the notion that a reform plan recently drawn up by a good-government group called LEARN will actually be allowed to work. And maybe the widely debated break-up of the district will indeed be going nowhere, leaving the San Fernando Valley with no alternative to choice if it is to escape the clutches of the downtown bureaucracy.
Likewise, maybe San Franciscans will despair of their success-defying district, where 46 percent of students are of Asian heritage—normally a beacon to parents of all races who want their kids in an academically serious situation—and yet upscale residents still won't give the schools a second thought. Maybe the cruddy nihilism that reigns in countless other classrooms around the state will give rise to another of California's legendary populist revolts.
If, on the other hand, the choice issue blows up in its backers' face again, with the whole nation watching this time, both the Colorado and Oregon activists say their own spirits will be drained. But still another day of battle will dawn. In Michigan, where the legislature has wiped the revenue slate clean of property-tax revenue and schools must be refunded from scratch, a fall 1994 choice initiative now seems propitiously timed. (There's no cleaner way to "equalize" school finance among rich and poor areas.) That election date looks similarly promising in Florida, where explosive discontent with government services and the population's general lack of deep roots may deprive the school lobby of customary cover.
Perhaps going for statewide adoption is too far a reach in most places as yet. A growing number of choice supporters think the best hope lies in starting small. That's why the next Colorado initiative, if it goes ahead, will not mention vouchers at all, but will simply permit school districts to do what they please with their 40-percent state expenditure match. Sponsors hope that areas cursed with miserably run schools—the local equivalents of L.A. and San Francisco—will gamble on opening the door to private competition.
Another idea is to fund pilot programs, as insurance executive Patrick Rooney is doing privately in Indianapolis. Oregon almost went this way for '94, but a majority of the organizing committee chose to go for a full-blown voucher system again. Buchanan muses about simply giving credits to 10,000 incremental poor kids each year. If a decent number succeed, "the rest of the people will follow."
Alternatively, the contracting out of existing public schools, as has begun in Baltimore with an outfit called Education Alternatives from Minnesota, and as is now promised by Chris Whittle's troubled Edison Project, could be a good advertisement for "private provision" in the short run.
The likelihood is for both small-arms fire and giant cannon blasts in the politics of choice over the next decade or more. Buchanan suggests, "This is one of those fights that may have to be fought again, and again" before any sort of Westphalian peace prevails. On the other hand, Doreen Torgerson says the war may end suddenly.
"We don't have to win everywhere. We have to win somewhere," she avers. "The opposition can't afford to lose anywhere. If they do…the dam's going to break."
Tim W. Ferguson is a Los Angeles-based columnist and editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal.
On August 10, the Committee to Educate Against Vouchers faxed a warning to promoters of Prop. 174, California's school-choice initiative. The message referred to pro-voucher radio and TV ads and demanded that they "cease" making certain statements. The trouble is, the pro-choice side hadn't yet produced any TV or radio material. Further, the CEAV letter contained 17 typographical errors including a reference to "pubic schools." Pro-choice strategist Ken Khachigian sent the letter back, fully corrected, with the note: "Do you wonder, now, why the School Choice Initiative has so much support?" Below are copies of the original letter, as corrected by Khachigian, and his reply.
-K. L. Billingsley
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Getting an Education".