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Report on private schools uncovers more uncertainties about Prop. 174

STANFORD -- Recent media reports on private education may have underestimated the opportunities for "school choice" in private education, according to a new report on private schools issued by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a non-partisan think tank based at Stanford University and at the University of California-Berkeley.

The report was issued with little more than a week remaining before voters decide on Proposition 174, which would give California parents $2,600 vouchers for each of their children's education.

The 17-page report is part of a longer study on issues surrounding Proposition 174. An earlier PACE report described uncertainties about the fiscal impact of the proposed legislation; a PACE poll found that California citizens liked the concept, but not necessarily the reality, of school vouchers.

Moreover, according to a Stanford researcher who wrote a background paper for the report, the public may be unaware of private schools' reservations about whether they would even accept vouchers, as called for in Proposition 174.

Howard Block, a doctoral candidate in the School of Education and one of the researchers involved in the study, said the new report attempts to fill in the current void of information about private schools in California.

The report states that, to date, a spring 1992 survey by the Southwest Regional Laboratory is the only empirical study that has attempted to measure the capacity of private schools to absorb new students.

According to the PACE report, private schools enroll nearly one-tenth (9.6 percent), or 554,000, of California's K-12 students. Forty-five percent of the private school students who are enrolled in schools of 25 or more attend Catholic schools; 38 percent attend other religious schools, and 17 percent attend independent schools.

The report outlined the many unknowns about private schools. For example, it is impossible to determine the average tuition rates and availability of financial aid for private schools. Student achievement levels are also among the gaps in our present knowledge about private schools. No data are available on the percentage of Christian (non-Catholic) schools that are accredited. Although minority enrollment in Catholic schools is 52 percent, no statistics are collected for minority enrollments in other Christian schools or in "independent" schools. Currently, private schools are not required to report their faculty's qualifications to the state. The capacity in the private school sector for absorbing new students is also unknown.

Proposition 174 stipulates that a private school must enroll 25 students or more to be eligible to redeem vouchers. It also disqualifies schools that discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin.

Block interviewed nearly 40 school superintendents, headmasters and policy administrators in an informal survey designed to understand the economic issues surrounding educational choice.

Why schools may refuse vouchers

Block found that private school administrators have a number of reasons to refuse vouchers - which makes predicting any outcomes from the passage of 174 even more uncertain.

"During the two-month period of my research, some administrators changed their minds a couple of times. It's a very fluid situation."

Many administrators feared "regulatory encroachment," said Block. "They feel that 'if you take the king's money, you're the king's man.' "

"There is a good deal of historical precedent for their fears," Block said. "In other countries in similar situations, the government arm has stayed attached to that money in the form of regulation and auditing on the use of that funding."

Many administrators also told Block that they recognized a "synergy between private schools and public schools," and that they feared that vouchers would harm public schools and therefore, in the long run, private education as well.

"It was more than a 'politically correct' issue for them," said Block. "They feel that public schools are an integral part of the community. Threaten them and you threaten the community."

Religious school administrators also had legal reservations about vouchers. Because of a severability clause within Proposition 174, should one part of the proposition be ruled unconstitutional, the measure as a whole would still stand.

Therefore, should the courts rule that religious schools cannot accept vouchers without violating the separation between church and state, religious schools - the vast majority of California's private education sector - would be placed at a competitive disadvantage with secular schools, which could accept vouchers.

Administrators also had misgivings about how an influx of government cash might affect the grass-roots nature of private schooling.

"Basically, one of the keys to success for private schools is 'communitarianism.' They have a sense that they're all in this together," Block said.

"Of course they want voucher money. But it creates a testy situation - it threatens communitarianism. It shifts the power to an outside source. And there are bound to be divisions about how to use the money."

Do private schools have room for more kids?

Despite the recent Southwest Regional Laboratory (SWRL) report, said Block, the capacity of the private school sector to take new students remains a "great unknown."

According to the SWRL report, only 2 percent of public school students could be accommodated by using and expanding the private schools that exist, said Block.

A major shortcoming of the SWRL report, according to Block, is that only principals were queried about vouchers and school capacity.

"Principals don't have the power to make these decisions. School boards do. These matters would have to be decided during a board meeting. And I can't believe the principals called for a board meeting to answer the [SWRL] survey."

The PACE report noted that a Catholic diocese, for example, may have the capacity to reopen a closed school - "a matter about which an individual principal would have little knowledge."

According to the SWRL report, said Block, there are only 4,000 potential spaces in Catholic schools.

"However, I spoke to the superintendent of one diocese, and he said he could have an additional 1,600 [students] in his district alone. The SWRL survey didn't ask him about new schools being built.

"So often when principals were asked about their schools' capacity, they were looking out at the 25 chairs in the classroom - and there was a kid in every one of them. So they told people they were operating at full capacity. But if you put five more chairs in the classroom, then suddenly you'd have a different situation."

Block said increased capacity within existing schools could come in a number of unconsidered ways: "Administrators could use school gymnasiums to enroll more kids. Or they could put portable units on an empty field next to the school. There are a lot of empty fields around, and portable units only cost $400 to $500 a month to rent."

Block pointed out that new schools could open quickly: Auxiliary educational services, for example, after-school institutes for intensive training in math or science, could rapidly turn into new schools.

"They already have teachers, desks and customers. All of a sudden, every customer would have $2,600 for education."

Other sources of additional schools are less obvious. For instance, said Block, "There are a lot of black Baptist pastors in South Central Los Angeles who could accommodate 25 pupils in the basement of their church or in a rectory.

"How do you include them in a survey? You just can't go out and wave down every black pastor. It's a very complicated thing."

During his research, Block spoke to one local educator whose children were withdrawn from private schools after she lost her job and was unable to pay their tuition.

"In 1994, she is planning to start a Malcolm X Academy in Richmond. It isn't a fly-by-night operation. She has a master's degree in education. She has a business plan."

Moreover, said Block, surveys have looked only at schools with more than 25 students - the only ones eligible to redeem vouchers. However, if many smaller schools enlarged to include a few more pupils, they too might be eligible. Yet they are uncounted in any of the current studies.

Further, Block said that there is enough ambiguity in Proposition 174, as it is currently worded, to allow legislators to reduce the number of students that make a school eligible to redeem vouchers.

"Should they lower it enough, they could bring in the issue of home schools," said Block.

Block said the SWRL report may be "unfair to the advocates of choice in schools. It didn't portray what the situation might look like in one year - or in five.

"When people think private education, they think Andover, they think Exeter," said Block, "but right now, 80 to 85 percent of private schools are religious schools. With vouchers, maybe it won't be 85 percent anymore. On the other hand, maybe it will be more. There are a lot of conservative religious forces that might start schools.

"We cannot consider the past as prologue. Vouchers would change everything. It would have a ripple effect throughout California education."

Vouchers will be back

Block urged voters to pay careful attention to the issues involved with private education and vouchers, because they will be a continuing issue in education - regardless of the outcome of next week's elections.

Block noted that most predictions foresee that "Proposition 174 is going to get clobbered - it's going to lose big."

But he said that there is a danger that "once it becomes an obvious landslide loss, people may lose interest in the issue."

However, he warned that greater "educational choice" is likely to become a fixture on America's educational agenda - and in elections across the country. In California, "it will be back, maybe as fast as November 1994. I'll bet someone is drafting a new initiative now."



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