COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

High court assures new California voucher battle

All has been quiet on the school voucher front in California for almost two years, ever since voters overwhelmingly rejected for a second time the notion of using tax dollars to let parents place their children in private or religious schools.

But no longer. The same activists who previously failed to bring vouchers to California waited only moments to vow another go-'round after the 5-4 conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court gave its constitutional thumbs-up to a voucher program targeting poor children in the worst schools in Cleveland, Ohio.

"Vouchers will be back in California," said Alan Bonsteel, president of California Parents for Educational Choice. Bonsteel, by the way, has never been a parent.

He and other voucher activists did not give up on their ideas even after Californians rejected their Proposition 174 in 1994 and their repeat attempt as Proposition 38 in 2000.

Their central ideal was written into Proposition 38, which lost by a 73-27 percent margin, as bad a defeat as any recent voter initiative has suffered.

"Families have the right to have their children attend schools that successfully teach reading, writing and mathematics to all enrolled students," the failed measure asserted. "The economic and social viability of California depends on a well-educated citizenry."

No one argued with those statements. The devil was in the details, or, rather, in the lack of details. The hazard in any new voucher initiative is that if it, like the previous two, is the product of anti-government libertarian thinking, it could spell social disaster for this or any other state and thus would almost surely be defeated.

That's what happened in 2000. While the opening principles were indisputable, opponents pointed out many dangers in Proposition 38, just as they did with the similar initiative that lost six years earlier. There were few improvements from the defeated 1994 measure to the even-more-widely defeated 2000 one -- and if the same people write a new initiative and qualify it for the 2004 primary, chances are this one also will have most of the flaws that killed the other two.

Both those putative laws stressed that government should keep hands off private and religious schools, but merely funnel tax money to them via parents who want out of public schools. In 2000, the measure called for no "unnecessary, burdensome or onerous" regulation.

Once voters realized this meant there would be few controls over curriculum, health and safety standards or ideology, Proposition 38 was doomed.

Since then, Californians have also seen what lack of supervision can mean even in schools that are only partially independent. Remember the Islamic charter school in Fresno that was caught last fall teaching jihad? No one even noticed that school and its harmful potential until after the events of Sept. 11.

Now the whole world knows the dangers of ideologically unfettered schooling. Witness the result of the anti-American and anti-Semitic hated that has been thoroughly documented in many Islamic schools around the world.

In California, a voucher-school system free from most government supervision would surely lead to even more Balkanization than what this state now suffers. Single-interest schools were poised to spring up the moment either Propositions 174 or 38 passed, if they had. Armenian groups were ready with schools aimed at Armenian kids. A witches' coven in Contra Costa County was all set with a school. African-Americans were prepared to start teaching kids of their own ethnicity. Orthodox Jewish day schools salivated over the potential for expansion.

Today's California is more diverse than any state or nation in history, with native speakers in 87 languages among current students. How, in a paraphrase of onetime police beating victim Rodney King, can they all get along if they don't get to know each other? And how better to become acquainted than by sharing classrooms and playgrounds and cafeterias?

Yes, it's true races and ethnic groups tend to separate during free periods in public schools, each congregating together. But at least there is some interaction. Give them separate schools, and they'd have none.

So constitutionality doesn't matter in this issue, even if the slim majority on the Supreme Court is correct in its landmark ruling. The question of legality did not defeat vouchers both times they were proposed here. They lost because they were bad public policy. Plus the fact that the dollar amount of the would-be vouchers was many thousands of dollars below tuition levels at the best private schools.

Vouchers remain bad policy today, and they will still be bad policy whenever the inevitable new proposition appears on California ballots. -30-


Elias is author of "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It." His email address is thomas.elias@sddt.com.

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