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Resurrecting Public School Reform

GUEST COMMENTARY

By Dougls J. Lanzo

The most sweeping educational reform effort of the 1990s, a referendum which attempted to empower schoolchildren's parents at the expense of education bureaucrats, has just been defeated in our nation's most populous state. California voters rejected Proposition 174 and its plan to distribute $2,600 in education funds to the parents of schoolchildren throughout the state. Some will herald this "victory" of the teachers' union and celebrtate the supposed death of school choice as a state or national issue. But they will witness the speediest resurrection in 2,000 years.

We are currently experiencing a fundamental crisis in education. California voters certainly realize this. According to Business Week, a survey of 1,400 California adults cited education as the single issue deserving the highest priority. Most California voters support the concept of school vouchers, as demonstrated by a recent poll by researchers at Policy Analysis for California Education.

Proposition 174 was not defeated because of its being intellectually unsound; rather, it lost due to the failure of its proponents to reassure parents about certain basic elements of the plan. The spectacular war chest of teachers' unions, who waged a multi-million dollar media campaign, enabled questions and reservations concerning the proposal to override consideration of its many benefits. Nevertheless, a few improvements to Proposition 174 could have allayed many of these parental fears and made the proposal a national model for education reform.

Instead of providing fixed voucher amounts to parents, a more equitable and cost-effective plan might have introduced a graduated voucher system. The parents of a child enrolled at a private school could receive vouchers which varied according to the school's tuition. One possible scenario would be as follows: For every dollar that the private school tuition exceeded the voucher, a dollar would be deducted from the amount of the voucher paid to the parents of the enrolled student.

This graduated private school voucher system would both encourage parents to choose reasonably priced private school educations for their children and encourage schools to maintain reasonable tuitions.

For this example, schools priced above twice the amount of the voucher would not receive any vouchers, and thus unnecessary subsidation of elite private schools could be avoided. Teacher union cries of private school inflation and excessive "defunding" of public schools would quiet to a whimper.

Another welcome improvement would be to introduce certain guidelines, regulations and standards to ensure a reasonable quality of education at any and every school. One such guideline might mandate that all newly hired teachers at voucher-participating schools hold Bachelor of Arts degrees. This college degree requirement would not apply retroactively but would apply to current teachers wishing to transfer to other voucher-participating schools.

Helpful additions to a future Proposition 174 could be the incorporation of annual state achievement tests and mandatory disclosure of these results and other information to the State Department of Education. Children would take these exams at the conclusion of every year, kindergarten through senior year, thus enabling parents to intelligently compare test results and choose the most appropriate schools.

The "other information" which participating schools would have to report would include the average student-to-teacher ratio, the graduation rate and the basic curriculum offered. The state would then provide the schoolchildren's parents with a compendium of data on every school statewide which participates in the voucher program. Schools refusing to disclose this information would forfeit voucher eligibility.

Another oversight of Proposition 174 involved the issue of transportation. School choice allows parents to select schools from a wide variety of geographic locations with considerable commuting distances. In the interests of equity and fairness, the state should eliminate the artificial barrier of excessive transportation cost by providing tax credits to the parents who pay transportation costs out-of-pocket.

These tax credits would credit basic amounts to parents based upon their commuting distance, with a cap placed upon a 60-mile radius from the voucher school, for example. Those commuting 0-30 miles might receive one fixed amount of tax credit, and those commuting 30-60 miles another. This fixed-income form of payment would encourage carpooling and create an incentive to select the cheapest available means of transportation.

California's Proposition 174 debate was closer to a monologue conducted by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and other powerful teachers' unions. Parents and students are the consumers of education, not teachers, but parents lack the organization and means to take on those resisting reform without effective grass-roots mobilization. A referendum like Proposition 174 had too many gray areas to elicit much supportive enthusiasm. In fact, the voucher timetable had not even been clarified to the voters. With a more carefully designed school choice ballot, a silent majority of concerned parents would revolutionize one state's education system. And they would vault school choice into the place of public prominence it deserves.

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