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Proposition 38: This Voucher Poses Problems for Both Traditional Private Schools and Homeschools

by Cathy Duffy

If voucher proponents can't pass a voucher in a state with one of the most dismal education performance records by spending upwards of $30 million and hiring the best professional campaign managers, it probably can't be done.

That's why the rest of the country is closely watching the outcome of California's November election. Voucher proponents have qualified an initiative backed by a Silicon Valley multi-millionaire (who reportedly will spend at least $20 million of his own money!) and a well-orchestrated campaign. This will be a hotly contested effort with the California teachers' union (CTA) mustering its own massive campaign. Estimates are that over $100 million will be spent by both sides which view this as a pivotal battle.
 
Many people are taking a pro-voucher position before really examining the issue thoroughly. There seems to be an assumption here in California that the only opposition will be coming from the CTA and its supporters.
 
Not so! Voters should look long and hard before signing onto this initiative with its long-term dangers for traditional private religious schools and, particularly, for private homeschoolers.
 
In summary, the five most significant of my nine key points can be summarized:
  • The voucher will require more regulation and oversight of all private schools, including homeschools. (See points 1, 2, and 6.)
  • Homeschools will end up with a homeschool law that requires more regulation and prevents them receiving vouchers. (See point 6.)
  • The protections, despite good intentions, can be overcome or gotten around in other ways. (See points 2, 5, and 7.)
  • Schools that refuse vouchers will lose students; many will face the choice of taking vouchers or closing their doors. (See point 3.)
  • The average cost of K-12 education at voucher-receiving schools will increase significantly. (See point 4.)

1) Loss of freedom for private schools

Private school officials who think they will be able to take voucher money without inviting additional state intervention or oversight are buying into a false sense of security. The writers of this initiative have clearly tried to provide some protection for private schools from our radical legislators who consistently push their homosexual rights, anti-parental control, etc. agenda on families. While the efforts of voucher advocates are well-intentioned, there are several ways to get around the limited protections, as well as other problems that will be caused by the voucher.
 
A major problem for private schools will be developing dependency upon the higher level of funding. Once this initiative is passed, private religious schools are likely to become dependent on the voucher funds (finally paying teachers reasonable wages, beginning sorely needed building projects, upgrading their materials, etc.). A danger for these schools is that when the additional regulations do come (there are numerous aspects of the voucher that will require the state to provide regulations simply to manage the program), the schools will be so dependent on the funds they will compromise to keep the vouchers rather than reject the regulations and lose the funds.
 
A major step toward loss of autonomy is already included within the initiative. It requires voucher-receiving schools to give their students the same tests that are given to public school students. As these tests become more and more aligned with the national education goals, they will tend to drive the curriculum of private schools in the same direction as that of government schools. The reason for this is that few schools will be brave enough to ignore the test content, risking poor test scores which might show their school in a poor light compared to their neighbors. For example, schools that choose a rigorous, traditional or classical education might well find their students scoring poorly on math tests since they focus on basic computation mastery rather than probability, statistics, and graphing in the primary grades as is required by the new state and national standards and reflected in current standardized tests.
 
The fact that tests drive curriculum is so widely accepted that tests reflecting new educational standards are developed in advance of the curriculum. Poor test scores alert schools to changes they must make to "teach to the test." Although pleased with increases in Stanford 9 test scores this year, few Californians are paying attention to the fact that this test is being replaced by new tests that align with California's education standards beginning as early as next year. ("Standards test could eclipse Stanford 9," Orange County Register, July 19, 2000.) To give advance notice to schools and teachers, student scores are also correlated with "California Content Standards," generally showing that students are not doing well in knowing content demanded by the new standards. This means schools will have to continue to revamp their curriculum to produce good test scores on the revised tests. All nationally-normed tests are continually changing to align with both state and national standards, so private schools using any of these tests will also have to change their curriculum if they care about maintaining high test scores.

2) Overcoming the 3/4 vote requirement and the need for new regulations

The large amount of money involved in the voucher plan will invite the participation of unethical, opportunistic entrepreneurs who will participate "until they get caught." A well-publicized instance of a shady entrepreneur collecting money for phantom students is all it might take to surmount the 3/4 vote requirement to enact new regulations for private schools.
 
Some doubt that fraud is likely since the initiative requires parents to apply for vouchers and schools to process payments for parents. I speak from my personal experience as executive director of a private scholarship program in Los Angeles. I witnessed numerous instances of attempted fraud and uncovered many more as we verified eligibility of students we "inherited" from a previous private scholarship program. School officials would sometimes "create" students, signing all the paperwork as if they were parents of students. Then they would verify that these non-existent children were enrolled in the school, forging the "parent's" signature when necessary. To eliminate such fraud we had to request income tax returns which identified children by social security numbers, visit schools, and actually interview some families. As written, the voucher does not specify the sort of verification procedures that we found necessary to identify fraud, let alone prevent it. While most of us are averse to allowing the government that level of investigative authority, the alternative is to permit fraud.
 
Other behavior on the part of schools or school personnel might invite regulation: financial mismanagement, sexual impropriety, or radical teaching such as white or black racial supremacy. Fraud and impropriety will require a response from the legislature, and this will be easy to get. Even though this is likely to happen only in situations that most would agree are problematic, the fact is that additional regulation will be the result.
 
The 3/4 vote requirement is not insurmountable. When Michelle Montoya, a Sacramento high school student, was attacked and murdered by a campus custodian in 1997, urgency legislation requiring both public and private schools to complete background checks prior to employment was passed with no nay votes before the suspect's trial was even put on the court calendar. The very next year, the hastily written Montoya Act was "fixed" by AB 2102 which also added a few new regulations, two of which directly addressed private schools. AB 2102 was passed by 93% of the Assembly and 90% of the Senate, again with no nay votes. Given the right circumstances, the legislature will muster the necessary votes. They will not want to be viewed as soft on fraud.
 
Prop. 38 is vague on the mechanism of the program, which means that regulations and procedures for administering it must be written. Among questions that must be addressed:
  • How will the Superintendent of Public Instruction verify statements from private schools regarding their qualifications (e.g., that they don't discriminate, that they don't advocate unlawful behavior)?
  • How will they determine if children actually exist instead of being fictitious "beings" created by a school?
  • How will they deal with illegal aliens who qualify for vouchers under the language of the initiative?
  • Where will the funding come from for the bureaucracy necessary to verify school and child eligibility, compute and process payments, and handle mid-year transfers and dropouts? (A sidenote: from my experience with the private scholarship program, I know that the voucher's present language requiring checks to be made out to parents, then signed over to the school on a quarterly basis will be extremely expensive and impractical. We found that even getting parents to come to the school twice a year within a 1-2 week period to sign a check or form required significant work on the part of school staff, time which they did not have. Then, to prevent fraud by schools, ideally the controller's office which issues the checks should also be cross checking parent signatures with original signatures on file with the county. If this isn't done, how could anyone spot fraud by unscrupulous school officials who might forge parent signatures for children no longer in attendance at the school?)
  • Since there are no specifics about how funds "banked" by parents to be used for post-secondary education are to be handled, what will the procedures and controls be for that part of the program? Will there be restrictions as to which colleges might qualify to receive the "banked" voucher money in the future?
  • Since private schools that receive vouchers cannot contract with any person convicted of a number of "moral" crimes (Section 4), how extensively must they perform background checks on any person or company with whom they contract-will they need a background check on the owner of the company that supplies milk to the school? Such questions indicate possible areas where additional regulations will be required simply to control fraud, keep proper records and accounting, and meet the requirements of the initiative as written. The 3/4 vote protection cannot prevent regulations to deal with such matters.

3) Difficulties for schools that refuse vouchers

Some voucher proponents suggest that schools that think vouchers are dangerous should simply refuse to take them. While many of us would consider that a wise decision, it puts non-voucher-receiving private schools at a serious economic disadvantage.
 
Most parents do not recognize the concerns over independence and autonomy that some private schools believe are serious enough to make them refuse vouchers. Many parents are not concerned that taking vouchers might work for a school in the short run but cause it tremendous harm four or five years from now. Consequently, many parents compare private schools, with price being a much more significant factor than the school's autonomy. It is likely that a majority of voucher recipients will choose to put their children in private schools because such schools are safer or more academically sound than government schools. Such parents are not enrolling because they share and support the school's religious or philosophical commitments. These parents will most likely urge private schools to accept even more government intervention rather than give up vouchers. As mentioned previously, most schools will have already made commitments to building funds and increased teacher salaries that are dependent upon maintaining the higher enrollment produced by vouchers. Schools are then likely to find themselves in an impossible situation with no room to turn back.
 
If a private school refuses to take vouchers from the beginning, it will immediately face the challenge of convincing parents that their school offers something worth $4,000 more than the voucher-receiving school down the street-a hard-to-impossible task for most schools. Schools that care enough about their mission to refuse vouchers are likely to suffer declining enrollment and will probably go out of business within a few years.

4) The cost of K-12 education will increase dramatically

There is an economic principle involved with vouchers: subsidy increases cost. Vouchers will change the tuition structure of K-12 private schools. There will be immediate jumps for aforementioned reasons as private religious schools make improvements. Nonsectarian, for-profit schools will probably try to position themselves in the middle of the market, charging more than religious schools but less than the $15,000/year "prep" schools.
 
Rather than keeping tuition at existing levels, voucher-receiving schools will have a tendency to increase tuition, lowering the parents' portion from what it would be if parents paid full tuition themselves, while increasing the amount of money received by private schools. Once the initial "reorganization" is in place, there will be pressures from both schools and parents to increase the dollar amount of vouchers to keep up with rising tuition costs. Schools will continually readjust tuition charges to "whatever the market will bear." Thus, we will almost certainly see a repeat of what has happened with higher education costs. "In 1943, the year before the G.I. Bill was passed, the average annual tuition at a private college was $2,570, in constant 1995 dollars. In 1995 it was $14,510, nearly a sixfold increase." ("Vouchers and Educational Freedom: A Debate," Policy Analysis, March 12, 1997, p. 36.)

5) Education entrepreneurs will diminish the voice of private religious schools

Another very real danger for private religious schools will be the massive entry into the market by educational entrepreneurs whose primary motivations are financial. Investors have put millions into projects such as the Edison Schools, Kaplan, National Heritage Academies, Nobel Learning, Cambridge Academies, and Advantage Schools. To take advantage of charter school laws and other government money, such schools align themselves with the national standards and support a purposeful religious neutrality. Since such educational corporations are more likely than private religious schools to have investment capital, these are the type of schools that will likely spring into existence to take advantage of the vouchers. (There are not nearly enough empty seats in private schools at present to accommodate the potential demand.) With the voucher guaranteeing about $4,000 per student, per year, and with no limit on total tuition that can be charged by a school, the profit potential for such schools is significant. (If the voucher had been set at only $1,000-$2,000, the financial incentive would be unlikely to attract for-profit schools into the market. The growth would, instead, be among religious schools.)
 
The presence of a large number of for-profit, non-religious schools will seriously dilute the voice of religious private schools that would normally resist state mandates on issues related to morality, testing, and hiring. For example, nonsectarian for-profit schools are unlikely to resist laws that would reinstate non-discrimination regulations or laws regarding hiring homosexuals. The recent passage of such laws in California that forbid many private schools that receive government funding from discriminating against homosexual applicants for teaching positions is one of the primary motivations for many private religious schools to support this voucher. So, with passage of the voucher, private schools might ultimately worsen their ability to prevent such legislation in the future.
 
An insider who works closely with education venture capitalists comments that it is hard to see why secular, for-profit schools would not welcome government strings that would knock out their religious competitors and enlarge their market share as well as their "voice" in determining the future of private education in California.

6) Problems for homeschools

One of the most troublesome parts of this initiative has to do with the negative effects on private homeschooling. Some proponents have been dangling the $4,000/year vouchers in front of homeschoolers like the proverbial "carrot on the stick." Since homeschoolers currently operate as private schools under present law, they too qualify for vouchers, and many are being enticed by the idea of the "free money." Longtime opponents of both vouchers and homeschooling are unlikely to allow homeschoolers to receive vouchers without a fight. There are several ways they can try to prevent this, but the most probable is that they will simply pass legislation to define homeschooling, taking it out of the private school category by creating a specific law for homeschooling. J. Michael Smith, president of Home School Legal Defense Association, opposes this voucher initiative, believing that it will likely result in a homeschool law. This would be very dangerous for private homeschoolers in California.
 
More than 30 other states have homeschool laws. California private homeschoolers currently have far more freedom than those in most states with these laws. Any homeschool law is bound to be more restrictive and intrusive than the present situation. Once homeschooling has been legislatively redefined as separate from private schooling, homeschoolers will not be able to get vouchers AND they will be saddled with restrictions and requirements not currently imposed on them. We realize that this is an unintended consequence, but it is almost certain to happen if the voucher passes.
 
Some rationalize that government officials can try to pass a homeschool law whether or not the voucher passes. However, this ignores the political reality of a current lack of incentive (money) and political grounds (fraud) to do so. It is important to recognize that homeschoolers have a much better position from which to mount their defense if they do not take government money. Once they accept vouchers, they are in a poor position to resist regulation. Even if no homeschoolers accepted vouchers, the availability of state funding for them provides the incentive for opponents of home education to push for a homeschool law.

7) Courts might bypass protections

There is no guarantee that courts will not throw out portions of this initiative while allowing the rest to remain. How well the protective clauses or any other language stand up in court remains to be seen. The Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida voucher programs have been continually challenged in the courts ever since their inception. We should expect the same in California. Resulting changes to this initiative could prove worse than the initiative as presented to voters.

8) Increasing dependency

Many people who believe in limited government think that all or most forms of transfer payments-welfare, social security, food stamps, etc.-should be reduced or eliminated. Generally, they would applaud those parents who take personal responsibility for educating their own children. Such parents are exhibiting more independence and self-sufficiency than those who rely on the government to pay for their children's education.
 
Those who prefer limited government need to consider the effect of bringing formerly independent parents into financial dependence upon the government. At present, about 12% of families fund their own children's education in private or home schools. While there will always be a small contingent of these parents who will never accept vouchers, nevertheless we are likely to see the percentage of self-financing families drop to as low as 1%. The irony is that many conservatives who believe in limited government are promoting a voucher that is likely to increase the number of families dependent on government funding for education from 88% to 99%.

9) But we need to do SOMETHING!

Many well-intentioned people are supporting Proposition 38 in the belief that "doing something is better than nothing." While that might be true in some instances, it's a very dangerous justification when it comes to legislation. Most voucher proponents are unaware of some of the harm this voucher will do. Some acknowledge it will do some harm, but they are willing to accept it as a tradeoff to accomplish other goals such as weakening the teachers' union. Whatever their understanding, they seem to share a desire to rescue children from a failing school system. The voucher is the method most readily at hand.
 
However, there are better and safer ways to rescue children. For example:
  • Supporting private scholarship plans to fund private education for the poor.
  • Renewing the "paycheck protection" strategy to defund the teacher's union. (This would make it much more difficult for unions to use their members' dues for their own political agendas.)
  • Continuing work to create more affordable, high-quality private schooling options using technology to lower costs.
  • Encouraging and assisting families to homeschool their own children.
  • Urging churches and community groups to be involved with teaching people how to live within their means, freeing up more families to be involved in private homeschools or traditional private schools.
Desperate solutions are rarely the best. The long-term harm to private schooling is likely to follow the negative pattern other such programs have followed in countries all over the world. Private religious schools and those promoting particular philosophies gradually lose their unique character and their mission mindset. They make compromise after compromise to keep the funding until it is almost impossible to distinguish private schools from government schools. (For evidence, see numerous sources such as Market Education by Andrew Coulson, Choice of Schools in Six Nations by Charles Glenn, and The Global Education Industry by James Tooley.)

There are additional principled and practical reasons to oppose Proposition 38, but perhaps some folks will pause to consider a few of these concerns before committing their support to this initiative.
_________________________________
Copyright, Cathy Duffy, July 2000
Permission is granted to reprint this document in its entirety only.

This analysis is based upon the official version of the initiative published by office of the Secretary of State of California. Cathy Duffy is the author of the Christian Home Educators' Curriculum Manuals and Government Nannies as well as president of Grove Publishing. She helped create the privately-funded Children's Scholarship Fund program in Los Angeles in 1998 and served as its executive director. She is in no way associated with the California Teachers' Association, has repeatedly worked against CTA legislation over the years, and is almost always in direct philosophical opposition to this union's radical agenda.

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media