CA Bucks National School-Choice Reforms

The following first appeared in City Journal California.

JAN. 30, 2012


January 22 through 28 marked the second annual National School Choice Week. While much of the rest of the country can celebrate some successes since last year, California’s education reformers often spend their days fighting rearguard actions just to preserve hard-won but modest gains. Nationally, the 2010 elections galvanized school reformers and led to such a quick succession of victories that the Wall Street Journal dubbed 2011 “the Year of School Choice,” while City Journal similarly called it “The Year of the Voucher.” By contrast, in California, the 2010 elections signaled new legislative assaults on charter schools, on open public school enrollment, and on parent empowerment.

It’s an amazing turnabout. As the Journal’s editors noted, no fewer than 13 states enacted school-choice legislation in just the first half of last year—creating new voucher programs in Indiana and expanding existing ones in Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio; eliminating charter school caps in North Carolina and Tennessee; and authorizing new tuition tax credits in Louisiana and Florida. Manhattan Institute senior fellow Marcus Winters noted last autumn how in the previous decade, the expansion of school-voucher programs had “slowed considerably” because of defeats at the ballot box and in state courts. Now, however, “the push toward vouchers is coming from a new breed of reform-minded politicians from both parties. Once a taboo subject, vouchers are now talked about openly on the campaign trail, and politicians are hiring reformers to run high-profile school systems.” Democrats who see school choice as a civil-rights issue have adopted what was once exclusively a Republican concern.

Where’s the Golden State?

Where was California in all of this? With a high school dropout rate hovering around 30 percent and a majority of college-bound graduates requiring remediation in English and math, the Golden State would appear to be a prime candidate for serious reform. But with a calcified state Legislature, an impenetrable state education code, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a powerful state teachers’ union, and a governor who owes his 2010 election to union support, preservation of the status quo is almost a given.

California does have a fairly extensive system of public school choice, but meddlers in the Legislature continually imperil it. California boasts more than 900 charter schools—public schools allowed to operate outside the bounds of typical school district regulations and union contracts—and that’s more than any other state. While most studies have shown charters to be better than traditional public schools, some say there is no difference between them. At worst, charters do the same job as traditional public schools for less money. Only about 15 percent of California’s charter schools are unionized, which is why the California Teachers Association—the top political spender in the state—has made a priority of eviscerating the existing laws rather than expending time and resources trying to organize hundreds of independent schools. Gov. Jerry Brown, in an encouraging display of political fortitude, stood up to the CTA last autumn when he forced legislative leaders to withdraw a series of anti-charter bills and vetoed several other bills that would have undermined charters’ independence.

Homeschooling Survives

Homeschooling similarly survived an onslaught from the state education establishment. About 200,000 homeschoolers reside in California today, though in 2008 it appeared that the number would be reduced to zero. The Second District Court of Appeals ruled that all instructors of children must have a state teaching credential, thus disenfranchising practically every homeschooling parent. A higher appeals court reversed the ruling five months later, claiming that homeschools are, in effect, private schools where no teaching credential is needed. While homeschooling represents the ultimate in parental control, relatively few families can afford to have one parent stay at home and become a full-time teacher.

A novel approach to school choice in California is the Parent Empowerment Act, better known as the parent trigger. The law, passed in 2010 by a single vote in both legislative chambers, lets parents of students in failing schools file petitions to force changes in school governance. The beauty of the law, written by former Democratic state Sen. Gloria Romero, is that it bypasses the traditional bureaucratic and union entanglements. If at least half of parents at a qualifying school sign a petition, the local district must undertake one of several prescribed options, including shutting it down or converting it into a charter school. Needless to say, the law—a bête noire for the entrenched education special interests—was attacked and nearly derailed. But buses full of determined parents lobbied heavily last year before the state Board of Education in Sacramento, and the parent trigger survived. Parents have “pulled the trigger” only twice so far—most recently two weeks ago—so it’s difficult to assess its impact. Even if more parents exercise the petition option, the law limits the number of schools eligible to be triggered at 75 (even though 1,300 schools qualify as failing).

‘Opportunity Scholarships’

What California needs most and doesn’t have are vouchers, which most advocates now call “opportunity scholarships.” Under a voucher system, a portion of public money designated to educate a child would follow the student to a school of the parent’s choosing. It could be a traditional public school, a charter school, or a private school. Seventeen such programs exist across the country, and after two decades, we have a good idea of vouchers’ effectiveness. Greg Forster, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indiana, reviewed ten empirical studies of voucher programs. According to Forster, “nine find that vouchers improve student outcomes, six that all students benefit and three that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. None of these studies finds a negative impact.”

Voucher opponents insist that such programs “siphon money away from public schools.” What they’re saying, in effect, is that private schools will perform better at the expense of public schools. True, public schools would lose some money under a universal voucher system, but there’s no evidence that this would make them any less effective. In a separate review, Forster discovered that “[19] empirical studies have examined how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Of these studies, 18 find that vouchers improved public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical studies find that vouchers harm public schools.” Even in the world of public education, competition works.


California has twice tried and failed to enact voucher legislation through the initiative process. Voters decisively rejected voucher measures in 1993, and again in 2000. The reasons for these lopsided losses are many. But with more states and the District of Columbia embracing opportunity scholarships, and greater public appreciation that the educational status quo is unacceptable, perhaps Californians would be more receptive to a voucher law now, even a limited one. Of course, should such an initiative make it to the ballot, the teachers’ unions would spend every penny and every ounce of human capital to keep vouchers from becoming a reality.

California would also benefit from a tax-credit scholarship program, which would allow individuals and corporations to receive a state tax credit for making donations to nonprofit organizations, which in turn would use the money to fund private school tuitions. Currently, 16 states offer some form of tax-credit scholarship program. But as with vouchers, tax credits could be a tough sell in a state where legislators are averse to any form of “privatization.”

If California is to afford its citizens a top-flight public education, as it once did, voters and policymakers must come to grips with the fact that education should be first and foremost about children. For far too long, the emphasis in public education in the state has been on the perks given to adults. As long as special interests remain in charge, California’s children won’t get the education that they deserve.

Larry Sand, a retired teacher, is president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.

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