Fighting, and Winning, School Choice in California
There is going to be a school choice initiative on the state ballot in November 2022.
While this is not an absolute certainty, the grassroots support for school choice is strong, and the infrastructure necessary to nurture a grassroots effort is now in place. The RecallGavin2020 campaign has proven the model, and fed up parents from Chula Vista to Crescent City are ready to strike.
What is far from certain however is the form a school choice measure will take, or the consequences of having it on the ballot. Evaluating these consequences in advance should guide school choice advocates as they consider what sort of product to hand over to the troops for signature gathering.
Broadly speaking, there are two avenues that a school choice initiative can take. Empowering charter schools, or creating education savings accounts, or ESAs. The California School Choice Foundation is already actively researching an ESA ballot initiative. These two options might be loosely summarized as follows:
SCHOOL CHOICE IN CALIFORNIA – EMPOWER CHARTER SCHOOLS
1 – Charter schools can be approved by the following entities: The state board of education, any county board of education, any school district school board, any mayor, and any public or private accredited university.
2 – There will be no cap established by the state or any public agency on the number of charter schools, or the number of charter school students.
3 – Renewal applications for charter schools that are denied by school districts shall have the right to appeal to any authorizing entity.
4 – No charter school application or renewal shall be denied on the basis of the financial impact it will have on the school district in which it is located.
SCHOOL CHOICE IN CALIFORNIA – UNIVERSAL EDUCATION SAVINGS ACCOUNTS
1 – An Education Savings Account (ESA) would be created for every K-12 student in California.
2 – These accounts would be credited annually with each student’s pro rata share of Prop. 98 funds (40% of the California General fund). This amounts to approximately $10,000 per student per year.
3 – The parents of K-12 students will be able to direct that money to a participating school whether it’s a public, charter, or accredited private or parochial school.
4 – The money, if unspent, would accumulate to be used for college, vocational, or any other accredited educational expense.
A big argument in favor of the charter school option is that the largely Democratic electorate in California is probably more inclined to favor charter schools over education savings accounts. But the danger of a charter school option is that it will attract a retaliatory, competing initiative courtesy of the teachers’ unions, one designed to kill off charter schools.
The appeal of the education savings accounts option is its scope. Allowing public education funds to follow the student to the school chosen for them by their parents means that private schools, religious schools, and all manner of new and innovative pod and micro schools would also benefit, along with charters and traditional public schools. But getting an initiative like this onto the ballot, and winning in November, are very different ballgames.
California’s electorate includes millions of voters who are conservatives, members of religious communities, and nonpartisan education reformers from a variety of communities. All of them will vote for universal education savings accounts. But while these millions are strong supporters of school choice, likely able to muster the grassroots support to qualify an initiative for the ballot and fight tenaciously for its passage, at this time they are outnumbered by voters who have been convinced over the years that traditional public schools must be protected. California’s political landscape is littered with the corpses of failed attempts to bring wholesale reform to public education.
The most recent attempt to convince voters to further school choice options in California was back in 2000 with Prop. 38, “School Vouchers,” which was rejected by voters 70.6 percent to 29.4 percent. The initiative, which would have granted state funded $4,000 vouchers per K-12 student, to be used by the parents for attendance at any private school including religious schools, was actually projected to save taxpayers money, because it would have enabled many parents to pull their children out of the much more expensive public schools.
How the teachers’ unions successfully fought Prop. 38 helps explain why California’s electorate has been soured to the concept of school vouchers. The unions relied on two powerful messages: “Billionaires are trying to destroy public schools so they can make profit with private schools,” and “rich people are collecting payments they don’t need, taking funds away from schools in low income communities.”
Both of these messages rest on fraudulent premises. The problem however is the rebuttals to these messages require more than the 40 words that fit into a 30 second television spot.
For example, demonizing billionaires is good sport for the unions, whenever it isn’t their billionaires. How billionaires use their money for advocacy is what matters, not their status as billionaires. As for “profit,” the presence of for-profit education subcontractors exists everywhere. The biggest financial ecosystem for profiteering in California’s education universe surrounds the public schools, where for-profit venders ranging from construction firms to purveyors of textbooks, computers, and school lunches are all making a killing. But these are nuanced, defensive arguments, lacking both the brevity and the clarity of the union salvo.
The argument that ESAs provide money to people who don’t need it is also a tough argument to rebut, even though it also rests on fraudulent foundations. The great appeal of universal ESAs is that everyone benefits. Low income families have the ability to bypass the failed public school monopoly and enroll in a parochial school, or a charter school, or any number of new and innovative options. Middle class families with children already enrolled in private schools would no longer struggle desperately to pay both property taxes and private school tuition. So what if wealthy families get money they don’t need? Put a cap on eligibility if that’s really an issue.
Imagine the innovations a universal program of ESAs would enable. It would accelerate the development of hybrid schools, blending in-person and remote instruction. Imagine a charter or private school that relied primarily on providing virtual instruction, which would reduce their overhead cost, but then used the money saved to pay for the big screens and high speed internet that low income families would otherwise find unaffordable. Imagine a charter or private school operator sending specialized instructors that would work with homeschoolers or micro/pod schools, instructing a dozen students at a time in a specific subject, rotating between several venues.
These sorts of innovations, already stimulated by the pandemic, combined with the disgraceful performance of the teachers’ unions during the pandemic, may have influenced California’s electorate to feel more favorable towards universal ESAs than they might have felt twenty years ago, or, for that matter, two years ago.
No attempt to put a school choice initiative onto California’s state ballot in November 2020 can fail to anticipate the counterstrikes by the teachers’ unions. Most political observers, unequivocally, consider them to be the most powerful political special interest in the state.
California’s charter schools, enrolling about ten percent of all K-12 students in California, didn’t emerge by accident. These schools were established despite opposition from the teachers’ unions, but there were other education reform offensives occurring at the same time, preventing the unions from focusing exclusively on crushing the charter school movement. Across the state, education reformers introduced litigation, legislation, and local initiatives that drew union fire. Also benefitting the growth of charter schools in California was the presence of powerful charter school advocates within the ranks of billionaire Democrats. Many of those donors have moved on to new causes: homeless, criminal justice, and climate change.
Finding the money to fight for school choice in California isn’t impossible, but the donors that funded previous efforts either need to refocus on education reform, or new donors have to be found. There are an estimated 165 billionaires in California, along with probably thousands of individuals with a net worth in excess of $100 million. These people can spend a million bucks the way ordinary people buy a cup of coffee. Where are they?
Money isn’t enough, however, as Republicrat Meg Whitman proved in her disastrous, and very costly campaign for Governor in 2010. To create favorable terrain for a school choice ballot initiative, brutal communication strategies will make the best use of funds. “Why did the unions let children commit suicide because they wouldn’t open classrooms?” “Why does the CTA defend pedophiles?”
As reform campaigns ought to have learned by now, policy proposals that amount to a frontal assault on public sector union power need to be accompanied by rhetoric that is equally antagonistic. These unions demonize their opponents, yet their opponents are unwilling to reciprocate.
Experienced observers urge an incremental policy approach. Limit ESAs to low income families, or learning disabled children. Just accomplishing that would be a shot heard across the nation. The experts also recommend parallel fights to split union forces. Why isn’t another Vergara case being attempted? Why not introduce legislation, or litigation, to address the need for more transparency and accountability in public education?
The split among Democrats on education reform is mirrored in the State Legislature. Many education reformers are biding their time, cognizant of the 12 year term limits coming taking effect starting in 2024, when 24 incumbents will be termed out of the State Assembly, with most of the rest termed out in 2026 and 2028. Their goal is to get pro-reform Democrats into those seats. But between now and then, a lot can happen.
This article originally appeared in the California Globe.