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PACE report finds support for concept, not reality, of vouchers

STANFORD -- Californians like the idea of school vouchers - but not if they mean less money for public schools, and only if the government has a greater say on how private schools are run.

The issue is important to Californians, who see education as one of the top problems facing the state-ranking it just below the economy and crime. They are dissatisfied with today's schools and want a major overhaul of public education.

These are the conclusions of a statewide poll of 1,400 California citizens, conducted by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a non-partisan think tank based at Stanford University and the University of California-Berkeley. The results, announced Sept. 30 at a press conference in San Francisco, come little over a month before state voters decide on Proposition 174, California's school voucher initiative.

"If you ask 'Would you like a free lunch?' They say, 'Yeah.' They'd like it. But when you get into the details, they have strong views about what they want," said Stanford Education Professor Michael Kirst, co-director of PACE. "They say, 'We want more choice, but we also want more protection, we don't want to increase costs, and we don't want to hurt schools fiscally - they're in enough trouble already.'

"However, they are also stating that they want a major overhaul. Will their desire for a major change outweigh all the uncertainties of Proposition 174? It's a trade-off. We don't know which way they'll flip."

Support from most groups

According to the study, 63 percent of adult Californians surveyed favor the school voucher concept; 33 percent oppose it. Support for vouchers was strong among all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic categories, except the elderly.

But the Californians was equally adamant that a voucher initiative should closely monitor and control voucher-redeeming schools. For example:

  • 87 percent said that, should a voucher plan be enacted, private schools should be required to meet state academic, fiscal and safety requirements.
  • 87 percent believed that, under a voucher plan, both public and private schools should be required to provide additional support for students with special needs.
  • 67 percent wanted the state to "cap" the amount of tuition voucher- redeeming schools can charge.
  • 60 percent said that, if a voucher plan is adopted, voucher-redeeming schools should be required to hire certified teachers.
  • 74 percent said voucher-redeeming schools should be required to publish test scores.

The respondents did not want to see cuts in public school funding if vouchers are adopted. Fifty-six percent said they would oppose a voucher system under such circumstances.

About 87 percent of Californians surveyed believed public schools should be changed; 61 percent went further and said they would like to see a major overhaul. African Americans, who were even less satisfied with public schools than other groups (29 percent gave their schools D or F, compared to 22 percent of whites, 18 percent of Hispanics, and 13 percent of Asians), were also more likely to want a major overhaul than Hispanics (58 percent), Asians (57 percent) or whites (63 percent); 72 percent favored an overhaul. However, African Americans also had less confidence in vouchers - 32 percent opposed the concept (compared with 28 percent of the Hispanics and 26 percent of the Asians polled).

"Maybe they think they won't get a good deal from vouchers, but we don't know for sure. We'd need to ask a lot more questions," said Kirst.

Although 59 percent said vouchers will expand options for children, 42 percent believe that at-risk children will benefit the least from them.

Legislators' dilemma

On the whole, the Californians shared a tremendous belief in the efficacy of private schools. Seventy-one percent believe private and parochial schools are much better than public schools. Sixty-three percent would grade their local private schools A or B; only 34 gave such grades to their public schools.

Curiously, polled citizens seemed to be indifferent to two issues that have been the mainstay of educators' and legislators' discussions of the vouchers: the majority (57 percent) were not concerned that vouchers would jeopardize the separation of church and state by providing funds for parochial or religious schools; nor were they concerned that school choice would undermine the public schools' traditional role in imparting a common culture (43 percent thought it would have no effect, and 25 percent said it would help this goal).

"In the literature, these are the classic, cutting-edge arguments," said Kirst. "But those polled don't think that these are big issues."

Kirst said the Californians reaction to vouchers - their approval of the concept coupled with their wish for more intervention in private schools - will cause a dilemma for legislators, because "the more regulation you put in the voucher plan, the more difficulty you will have getting ardent supporters. You lose support from your core constituency-from, say, private schools, which don't want regulation."

Overall, Kirst said the results show that the issues of school choice may well outlast the November elections.

"They are dissatisfied with the system and want a major overhaul. If Proposition 174 loses, they'll still be dissatisfied and want a major overhaul."



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