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School-voucher forces bowed, but unbeaten.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Far from crying defeat in the face of a 70rcent voter rejection of California's proposed school-voucher plan on Nov. 2, advocates of this measure and many allies of the concept of school choice think this election actually threw the door wide open for a new and better-drafted proposal. If the measure had passed, it would have been the nation's first statewide voucher system.

This campaign, fruitless though it seemed on election night, has in fact brought so much attention to the widespread dissatisfaction with public schools that there is speculation in California that this issue will reappear shortly in more acceptable terms and will be approved.

The California Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the bishops, deliberately withheld support for Proposition 174 and kept a neutral position throughout the campaign. It did, however, furnish to all parochial schools a stream of materials that, in part, emphasized papal remarks supporting family choice in education.

Some Catholic school principals publicly acknowledged support for the measure, and a few schools went so far as to solicit parents to contribute money to the pro-174 drive. But most of them, at the CCCs urging, staged parental forums that addressed both sides of the issue.

For many schools, the proposed state stipend of $2,600 per pupil was tempting, especially in depressed urban areas, where poor parishioners cannot afford to send children to their own parish schools, and where costs ran roughly $1,800 a year. Despite the official withdrawal from public discussion, the Los Angeles archdiocese's school superintendent, Jerome Porath, said the 285 Catholic schools in the archdiocese could have accommodated as many as 8,000 additional pupils if the voucher plan passed. With a stipend of $2,600 per pupil, he. said, there would be enough money to enlarge schools to meet new needs.

Among many Catholic school superintendents there was a decided post-election letdown. "I'm very disappointed," said Sr. Glenn Anne McPhee of the San Francisco archdiocese. She was particularly shocked at the amount of money thrown into voucher opposition by the California Teacher's Association, which supplied the bulk of $17 million in financial backing for the opposition campaign.

"I just question whether this political extravagance is the best way to use money on the children's behalf," she said. "Catholic schools did not participate in money-raising."

What particularly irritated Catholic school leaders was a barrage of generalities that filled campaign arguments against the voucher plan. The charges: Catholic schools lack standards and supervision, and their teachers lack credentials. Catholic educators were outraged at the wholesale misrepresentation.

Dr. Joseph McElligott, the CCCs associate director for education, pointed out after the election that the state had been filled with "misleading anti-private school television and radio advertising." This multimillion dollar campaign "obviously raised concern," he said. There was no distinction between present private and parochial schools and the lurid fantasies about the odd schools that could spring into being if Proposition 174 were enacted. Opponents feared that anyone with 25 or more students could open a school. One Berkeley woman told the press, "Now I can start a witches school."

Extensive polls showed that 87 percent of Californians were dissatisfied with current public schools and that 70 percent favored "choice" as a principle. McElligott expects a major overhaul of public schools will come before long, "despite the effort of public education interests who fear the loss of their governmentally funded monopoly."

Some Catholic school superintendents justified the bishop's silence on the basis that they avoided an overt intrusion of the church into politics.

Said McElligott: "California Catholic bishops hold strong convictions about parental choice in education, but they believe it is not their role as bishops to indicate the way in which educational choice can best become a California reality."

The bishops' hands-off policy was not publicly challenged, though some questioned it, notably in conservative Orange County, where support for vouchers is strong. In the Santa Ana daily newspaper, the Orange County Register, a group of anonymous Catholic school superintendents sought to confront and blunt the campaign of denigration that Catholic schools suffered in the general charges that regulations were lacking. Point by point, these principals spelled out the tests their teachers must pass and the class requirements pupils must meet to graduate from high school

One Catholic superintendent, Rhuepell Stroud Jr. at Oakland's St. Columbia School in a minority neighborhood, said he agreed with the position the bishops took in withholding support for this particular plan. But he said he saw parishioners unable to send their children to the parish school who do need voucher support. "Even with its flaws, I voted for it," he said, "because we have to begin somewhere. I'd like to see the move toward a voucher system proceed one careful step at a time, not having it locked into the constitution."

Sr. Lourdes Sheehan, secretary for education for the U.S. Catholic Conference, watched California returns in disappointment, but not despair. "By no means is this election defeat a fatal blow to parental choice. It is not a matter of if this will be accepted politically; it's only a matter of when. Ultimately, choice is inevitable."

California voters, Sheehan thinks, were subjected to extraordinary pressure and misinformation as some $17 million poured into the opposition campaign. Supporters of the proposition raised a scant $2.7 million.

Next time better organization and stronger funding will be needed to let public policy catch up with public sentiment, Sheehan said, noting that more than 70 percent of the American public favors parental choice. Three cities now have choice programs far more restrictive (they don't include parochial schools) than that proposed in California: Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Minneapolis. Measures somewhat comparable to California's were defeated in Oregon in 1991 and in Colorado in 1992.

"People are beginning to recognize that we are the only democracy in which education is a monopoly," Sheehan said. As if to reinforce her views, California's secretary of state disclosed that within 36 hours of the polls'closing, five new plans for educational choice were filed.
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Title Annotation:California Proposition 174
Author:Leary, Mary Ellen
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Nov 12, 1993
Words:1007
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