Thomas D. Elias: Shades of voucher battles |

Thomas D. Elias: Shades of voucher battles

It came as a shock to the sponsors of California’s two failed school voucher ballot initiatives when their idea was rejected by many of the private schools which could have begun collecting state money under those plans.

Similarly, preschools by the dozen have surprised advocates of Proposition 82 this spring, insisting they favor the concept of universal preschool advanced by the current initiative, but don’t like what it might force them to do.

Their opinions eerily echo those expressed six years ago, when Headmaster Thomas Hudnut of the elite Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles viewed the 2000 Proposition 38, most recent effort by California’s voucher advocates.

“The money comes with too many strings attached,” Hudnut said. “We probably would not accept the vouchers even if the plan passes.” That stance did not offend parents of Harvard-Westlake students, who at the time were paying almost $20,000 a year tuition for each child attending. The $2,500 state vouchers proposed in that plan would not have helped much at Harvard-Westlake or most other top private prep schools.

Some of those strings: Private schools accepting vouchers would have to alter their admission processes, perhaps accepting more educationally handicapped children than they ever had. Private schools taking the money would also have been subject to all manner of other state regulation, from exit exams to curriculum dictates.

So even as the two Democratic candidates for governor – state Controller Steve Westly and Treasurer Phil Angelides – briefly ceased their attacks on each other and campaigned together for Proposition 82, many preschools were saying they would not take part in the plan if it passes.

The measure would offer preschool to all California 4-year-olds, with preschools getting about $6,000 for each child enrolled. The money would come from a tax on the “rich” — adding 1.7 percent to the income tax on individuals earning over $400,000 a year and couples making more than $800,000.

The plan has lukewarm opposition from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who favors universal preschool, but routinely opposes any and all tax increases.

Criticisms from current preschool owners, who now serve about 64 percent of all 4-year-olds in the state, sound somewhat similar to the private school objections that dogged school vouchers, centering on loss of control.

Under Proposition 82, money raised by the new levy on the wealthy would be distributed to county education offices, each then setting up local programs.

Existing preschools fear that would lead to establishment of preschools at today’s public elementary schools, which are already often overcrowded. They believe it could drive up the salaries of nursery school teachers, forcing many present schools out of business. And existing preschools at churches, synagogues and mosques likely would all be excluded from the state money, which cannot go to schools featuring religious instruction.

There is also concern from many Montessori schools, which wonder if state standards would compel them to change unique teaching methods and give up on their mixed-age classes.

Of course, no one would force today’s preschools to enter the program. But if parents were offered a $6,000 discount to send their kids to public preschools or private ones taking the state money, most parents would have a large incentive to move their kids.

“I’m going to vote no and I love the idea of universal preschool,” said the director of a Marin County Montessori school. “I think my school would be left out and lose a lot of our children, and that those kids would lose out by not getting the benefit of our methods. I just don’t think Proposition 82 is the way to do this.”

But Proposition 82, the only initiative on next month’s primary election ballot, may pass anyway. Voters have approved taxing the rich before. And unlike the epic battles over school vouchers, this plan does not find public schools, PTAs and teachers’ unions arrayed against it. Those interests in general like this idea.

Which gives this new kind of voucher program a big leg up as Election Day nears.]


Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist whose work appears in The Union. Contact him via e-mail at

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