Since August, all of us have been the targets of television advertisements supporting and opposing Proposition 38. No doubt proponents of the initiative will be quick to use the results of a recent Harvard University study that found an improvement in academic achievement of some African Americans, particularly low-income families that received vouchers and are enrolled in private schools.
Before these findings send us rushing to the voting booth to support vouchers, we need to examine Proposition 38 and how it relates to this recent study. The programs examined in the study bear no resemblance to what Proposition 38 mandates. Those programs were privately funded and targeted to low-income and minority students, underachievers and failing schools.
Proposition 38 does not focus on those in our community who are less privileged or underachievers. The $4,000 that will be available to school-age Californians will be available to everyone, no matter how wealthy or high achieving. In California, $4,000 does not come close to covering the ever-growing cost of private school tuition. Consequently, only the wealthiest among us will benefit from the "wisdom" of Tim Draper. We, as taxpayers, will be contributing $4,000 per year to those families who can already afford to pay private school tuition.
The hidden irony in this initiative is that the money taken from California's budget to pay private schools for taking in students will not come from the education budget, but rather from that portion of the budget which funds community colleges, roads, low-income housing, health care and other social services that serve the poor.
Los Angeles School Board President Genethia Hayes, during a recent presentation to the Anti-Defamation League, cited a survey her office conducted of the South Central Los Angeles area she represents. The least expensive private school charges $4,666 for tuition alone. This does not include the cost of books, transportation, uniforms or other required fees. And before those of you who can afford the additional expense go running to the private school of your choice, be aware that many who apply will not be admitted. There just isn't space.
Hayes noted that fewer than 1 percent of the private schools in her area (and there are few to begin with) have room for additional students. Most, she said, are full and have waiting lists miles long. And if a family should be lucky enough to find a school that does have an empty seat, an applicant still may not be admitted; perhaps because she doesn't seem smart enough, isn't wealthy enough, isn't of the right faith, the school doesn't want girls, or she has a disability, learning or otherwise. All of these are permitted exclusions under the ballot initiative. Hayes also stated that most experts estimate it will take up to 20 years for private schools to gear up to provide the extra seats needed in a growing community the size of Los Angeles.
Our public schools are the keystone of our pluralistic society. They are a mixture of races, ethnicities, abilities, religions and sexual orientations, which facilitates an environment where young people learn the civic skills that enable them to become productive members of society when they graduate. The truth is that private schools remain substantially segregated and look little like our society at large.
Unable to benefit from Draper's concept, minorities and students in California's poorest communities will remain in the public schools, which will suffer further as public funds are siphoned off into private schools for the wealthy.
As the debate over Proposition 38 heats up, beware of the uses to which the recently released testing data will be put. The beneficiaries of the Draper vouchers will not be those who need the most help.
Sue Stengel is the Western States counsel of the Anti-Defamation League. Connie Rice is co-director of the Advancement Project.