Taking the initiative on school choice in California


California is partisan Democratic by a substantial margin. In October Berkley’s Institute of Government Studies released the results of a cross-partisan poll of 1200 registered voters probing attitudes toward K-12 schools. Substantial parts of the poll focused on the potential support for subsidized parental choice, using the term “vouchers”. Fifty-Five percent of registered Democratic responders favored vouchers for low-income parents to choose a private or religious school. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans agreed. By contrast, the prospect of vouchers to all parents regardless of income dropped approval to 43 percent of Democrats and raised Republicans approval only two points. 

Don’t get too excited; California’s Legislature — like many another — is not about to stick it in the eye of the commanding majority’s best friend, the teacher’s union. The last democrat ready to do so was a congressman, the admirable Leo Ryan. In the fall of 1978 he conspired with choiceniks at Berkeley; the academics were to draft a popular initiative to amend the state constitution assuring choice for the poor. The draft was to be ready upon Ryan’s reelection in November and his return from a visit to South America. The draft was ready, but Ryan was not; between election and home he had made a professional stop in Jonestown in time to be murdered. The academics tried to proceed without him but failed when Milton Friedman opposed the plan for tipping the proposed restructure in favor of the poor.

Friedman and fellow libertarians twice tried their own pure market union of choice at California’s polls in the nineties; a dozen other like-minded groups on other states followed suit, several more than once. All of them put to popular vote prepositions for school vouchers that included little or no regulation to protect low-income families from systematic exclusion by popular private schools. Each managed to capture roughly 30% of the vote; pure market had had its day at the polls.

The California poll reconfirms the popular disinclination for pure-market mechanisms for school choice. It rumbles, though, strongly in favor of a popular initiative to amend the state law, yet clearly not in 90’s fashion. If support were instead to be aimed primarily where it is needed, and if private schools were expected to follow fair practices of admission, advertising etc., success at the polls seems highly probable in this state and elsewhere. If only this had been understood a quarter-century ago.