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Last November, California voters defeated “Proposition 174.” Had it passed, 174 would have provided scholarships to all school children in an average amount of $2,600 (half the cost of a California public school education). The scholarships were to be usable in participating private schools or in a new form of state school operating with virtually the autonomy of a private school. These new schools in both sectors were to be guaranteed total freedom (within federal law) to determine their own admissions and-in private schools-to charge whatever extra tuition the traffic would bear. For more than a decade opinion surveys had shown (they still do) that subsidizing educational choice-even in religious schools-is a popular idea. Until the campaign got into full swing last fall, the California polls showed strong support for Prop 174; thereafter its popularity rapidly declined. In the November election, the proposal was crushed 70 to 30.

Various plausible explanations are available for what was either an amazing shift-or a colossal misperception-of public attitude. The possible causes are interrelated. The first is an old favorite of political losers: The school establishment was able to outspend the proponents about eight to one; most of its twenty-four million dollars went for an exquisitely deceptive television campaign featuring such phantasmagoria as new private schools run by witches. The campaign was run by no-holds-barred publicists, typified by the young PR hot shot who in the summer of 1993 told me with relish of his firm’s plan to portray California’s future educators as ranging from religious eccentrics to Nazis. He assured me that he had nothing personal against his intended victims and that school choice was probably a good idea.

Second, the teachers’ unions-state and national-carefully cultivated the apprehension of the suburbanites that Prop 174 would deliver hordes of inner-city children to their schools. These middle-class folk-though generally well disposed to family choice and the market-feared that their schools might get even worse. The reality (of which they heard little) is that relatively few inner-city families are interested in suburban schools and fewer still would be willing to endure the burden of time and travel. Nor could most afford it, since the proposal failed to guarantee transportation (a feature well advertised to the inner city).

Third, the media tended to assume that Prop 174 was an ideological caprice of free market extremists hostile to public schools. And they said so. Nothing from the sponsors disabused them, and the actual language of Prop 174 allowed the interpretation that a great deal of money would have to be drawn from the public system, thereby reducing per-pupil spending. Simultaneously it was read to threaten an overall increase of spending to cover children already in private school. The text of 174 was labyrinthine, and the media-as was proper-played its ambiguities both ways.

Fourth, the issues were in fact complex, and the public might have been far from understanding them even after a well-financed campaign in favor of the proposal; when in doubt, voters generally say no to ballot propositions. Fifth, the timing was very bad; economic recession intensifies the tendency for voters to stand pat. Sixth, the proponents very soon fell into faction and scattered their meager resources. One group is now suing another.

Finally, apart from its unintended ambiguities, Prop 174 was not a sound piece of policy; and one suspects that, after all, the people really did understand it. Essentially it was the same device that was presented to the voters of Oregon and Colorado in the two preceding years with identical (and predicted) results. Its most salient flaws can be stated briefly: Although a $2,600 scholarship would fill up the remaining spaces in the existing inner-city parochial schools, the mass of low- income children would have no schools in which to spend their scholarships. As a similar experiment in Milwaukee demonstrates, $2,600 does not start many new schools in the city.

Suburbia is another matter. There the middle-class family could add to the state scholarship whatever tuition would be necessary to initiate new private institutions. That is good and proper, but-unless the aim is educational triage-the inner city is where reform must begin, and in a more substantial way.

Compounding the effects of short supply, Prop 174 guaranteed the absolute freedom of private providers to reject unpromising students. I intend no criticism of existing private schools; long observation and involvement convince me that they are in general more cordial to the hard-to-educate than are the public schools. Nor should private schools be expected to take special education cases of the kind local public schools can typically reject. But considerations both of principle and politics argue that schools operating on public money should make some modest commitment to the common task. Politically, the private schools must overcome the defamatory image that has been carefully nourished by teachers’ unions, school boards, government administrators, and apologists like the Clintons. But, in any case, Prop 174 came off as morally ambiguous. It not only permitted the private providers to reject less gifted children; they were also permitted to charge whatever tuition would assure that no low-income (or for that matter working- class) families would darken their door.

This question about the criteria of admission is a source of division among friends of family choice. Some of the libertarian proponents of Prop 174-taking their cue from Milton Friedman-still cling to the notion that private providers should get the state’s money while making no commitments whatever. In the fall of 1991, they contracted for a public opinion survey on the specific question as to whether an initiative should require participating schools to reserve 15 percent of new admissions for low-income children, if so many were to apply. They directed their pollster to label such a provision a “quota.” To their astonishment, a majority of the respondents approved it. And it is a measure of the proponents’ devotion to principle that they nonetheless struck this guarantee from the final draft of 174. It is a measure of the political alertness of the drafters of the current proposal for the Oregon state ballot that they have included a 20 percent set-aside for low-income children as a condition of any school’s participation. If there is anything certain in the politics of school choice it is that reforms that would shunt all the harder cases to the government sector will be pilloried by the media and rejected by the public.

So, what are the prospects for school choice? The short run will depend upon the so far unimpressive capacity of choiceniks to agree upon moderate proposals. By “moderate” I mean that the following principles must be satisfied.

  1. The initiative must neither: (a) increase total public spending more than a modest capped amount (say one percent); nor (b) entail the reduction of per-pupil spending in public schools; nor (c) threaten with substantial change those schools whose families are presently content.

  2. It must include a mechanism empowering providers in the public sector to deregulate immediately; government-initiated schools must be freed straightaway to operate in the manner of the private sector, if they choose to do so.

  3. The proposal must protect private schools from new regulation that could threaten their autonomy in curriculum, hiring, style, management, and choice of facilities; and they must retain absolute control of the great majority of admissions.

  4. The proposal must, however, assure that the participating private schools will allow some small share of the hard-to-educate children of the sort typically enrolled today in inner-city religious schools to enroll and give it a fair try.

  5. The scholarship for low-income children must be sufficiently large to stimulate formation of new providers without supplementation by tuition.

Satisfaction of these conditions would demonstrate to a receptive public that choice is the hope of the ordinary family.

Paradoxically, the greatest problem for choice in the long run may be the good-hearted attitude of those Americans who simply misunderstand the nature of what our society has called the “public” system. Too few have grasped that these state schools constitute an inward-turning monopoly that-at least in the cities-serves only itself. Largely ineffectual for all income classes, the monopoly goes out of its way to disfavor the working class and the poor who cannot escape its grasp. But to see this demands a great deal of people who generally experience the public school only as a local pathology. They have nothing with which to compare it; they cannot yet imagine how a free alternative could work. Few of their political leaders-at any level-have much incentive to tell them the truth; and even the friends of choice have allowed them to prefer the devil they know.

Until school choice is presented in a form both perspicuous and credible to ordinary families, it cannot count as a realistic policy alternative. There is some reason to hope that such a proposal will appear on the California ballot in 1996. At this point everyone seems to be trying.

John E. Coons is a professor at Boalt Hall, the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley.