Frustrated Parents Hope Their Votes Will Change Schools' Ways

Voters will consider a record number of education questions on state ballots next month, including whether to offer private school vouchers to parents, shut down bilingual classrooms, pay teachers based on student performance and virtually eliminate any mention in the classroom of homosexuality.

That millions of dollars have been spent gathering signatures to get 11 of these initiatives on state ballots is a reflection of parents’ frustration with public-school performance.

And while education has been a prominent issue in the presidential race and in most other major political contests, such sensitive issues as vouchers and ending bilingual education are likely to have a greater chance of being enacted through ballot measures than by politicians.

“People aren’t satisfied with either the course we’re on in the schools or the pace of change,” said Robert Schwartz, the president of Achieve, a nonpartisan education policy organization. “They don’t know quite what to do, so you see people flailing about with these various attempts to take education policy directly into their own hands.”

In a major test of the voucher movement, voters in California and Michigan will decide whether to direct their states to use public money to reimburse parents for at least part of the tuition they pay to parochial and other private schools. The California program would be open to all of the state’s 6.5 million public- and private-school students by 2005, which would make it the largest such effort in the nation, while in Michigan the vouchers would be reserved for several hundred thousand children in low-performing schools.

An Arizona measure, similar to one that passed in California in 1998, would eliminate bilingual education and would immerse native Spanish speakers in yearlong crash courses in English.

Voters in Oregon will decide whether to outlaw instruction that “encourages, promotes or sanctions” any “behaviors relating to homosexuality and bisexuality,” as well as whether teachers’ pay should be linked to students’ performance.

And under a measure in Colorado, where education spending has declined in recent years, school budgets would be required to increase at the rate of inflation plus at least one percentage point, over each of the next 10 years. Similarly, a California initiative would require that school spending exceed the national average, while in Michigan the amount spent per pupil would not be permitted to drop.

In a sign of the range of measures before voters ? and the divisiveness of the voucher issue in particular ? the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, voted this summer to impose a $3 annual surcharge on members’ dues, solely to mount a response to ballot initiatives. The effort has raised $5 million.

Much of that money is being spent in Michigan and California, where the union says that vouchers siphon money from public schools, but the union has also thrown its support behind a Washington State measure that would tie teachers’ salary increases to cost of living indexes.

Though the presidential candidates have talked a lot about education, their sway in the classroom is limited: the federal government provides an average of only 7 cents of every dollar spent in American schools, compared with 48 cents from the states and 45 cents from localities, federal statistics show.

Many of the most significant changes in public education in recent years have thus originated in the states, spreading like a folk tale from one to the other, including the standards and standardized tests that every state but Iowa now uses.

Of the 32 major education initiatives to be voted on this year, 11 were petitioned onto the ballot, often by grass-roots organizations, more than double the previous record of 5, in 1996, says the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonpartisan organization that has tracked such measures since 1904. The remaining 21 school measures were placed on ballots by legislatures, which were usually seeking permission to raise money for school construction and other additional spending.

The California initiative, Proposition 38, which would offer a $4,000 chit to every student in the state who wished to attend private school, has touched off a pitched battle stoked by millions of dollars. Supporters of the initiative have even tried to woo voters to visit the campaign Web site by raffling Apple iMac computers and Hawaiian vacations.

Thus far, the gimmicks appear to be failing: in a survey of 1,099 likely voters last month by the Public Policy Institute of California, an independent research organization, 53 percent of Californians opposed the measure, 37 percent supported it and 10 percent were undecided.

The driving force behind the initiative, Tim Draper, is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist dissatisfied with the public-school education that his four children received. Mr. Draper has pledged $20 million to the campaign to pass Proposition 38, enough money to build a small high school.

Chris Bertelli, a spokesman for Mr. Draper’s political organization, Prop. 38 Yes, said, “The goal is to provide access to a quality education to every child in California.”

Though the National Education Association and its California affiliate have pledged $4.5 million to defeat the measure, some of the measure’s unlikeliest opposition has come from conservative leaders who have backed voucher experiments in almost every other city or state that has tried them.

They have objected to Mr. Draper’s attempt to begin a voucher program on a statewide basis, regardless of a family’s income, and they worry that his effort, should it fail, would tarnish the voucher movement nationwide as it seeks to expand beyond experiments in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Florida.

“Voucher proposals are more likely to be acceptable to citizens if they start with the neediest children,” said Terry M. Moe, a self-described “very strong voucher supporter” who is an expert on education policy at the Hoover Institution in California. “I wish Draper had not done this.”

The nation’s school-choice proponents, a loose-knit coalition of business and religious leaders, conservative academics and minority parents, have strongly supported the Michigan proposal. The plan would offer a voucher of about $3,300 to each student in a school district in which fewer than two-thirds of all high school freshmen graduate within four years.

There are currently seven such districts, including Detroit, with a total enrollment of about 180,000, according to the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, an independent research organization.

The Michigan voucher supporters, who call themselves Kids First! Yes!, have not lacked for financial resources: one of the campaign’s chairmen, Dick DeVoss, the president of the Amway Corporation, has promised to raise $5 million. But the National Education Association has also weighed in, with $1.7 million spent in opposition. Voter surveys in recent weeks have suggested that the race is too close to call.

That is not the case in Arizona, where voters seem poised to end bilingual education, just as California did two years ago. A survey of 602 likely voters conducted last month by The Arizona Republic found nearly three-quarters of them in support of placing all limited-English speakers in a yearlong English immersion course.

Supporters of the measure, No. 203, have lamented that in a state where 1 of every 8 students is not a native speaker of English, some Spanish-speaking students have spent upward of eight years in bilingual classes that were intended to serve as a short-term transitional bridge to mainstream English courses. Supporters of the measure received encouraging news from California last month, when results of standardized tests released by the state suggested that the scores of limited English speakers had risen in the two years since bilingual education programs ended.

“Bilingual has lost its mandate to teach English to Mexican children,” said Hector Ayala, a native of Mexico and an English teacher at Cholla High School in Tucson who is the co- director of English for the Children of Arizona, a sponsor of the measure.

But Sal Gabaldon, an English teacher at Pueblo High School in Tucson, said the immersion courses would be too abrupt, and would threaten the native language literacy of tens of thousands of Spanish- speaking students, as well as of thousands of speakers of American Indian languages.

In Oregon, a survey of voters last month by The Oregonian found them evenly divided on Measure 9, which states: “The instruction of behaviors relating to homosexuality and bisexuality shall not be presented in a public school in a manner which encourages, promotes or sanctions such behaviors.”

Patricia Smith said her organization, the Oregon Citizens Alliance, a coalition of conservative activists, had placed the measure on the ballot in response to complaints from parents. “This business of going into the classroom and saying homosexuality is normal, that has got to be stopped,” said Ms. Smith, a parent whose grown children attended public schools.

Among those fighting the measure are an array of social service agencies that have argued that, by its broad language, the measure could deny students potentially lifesaving education about AIDS.

Another group of voters, Oregon Taxpayers United, has placed a separate measure on the ballot that would eliminate teacher pay scales based on seniority, in favor of raises tied to how students perform.

But the measure leaves it to the state and districts to sort out the critical question of whether standardized tests or principal evaluations should be a measure of performance. An editorial in The Oregonian last month suggested that the initiative had been “sketched on a cocktail napkin.”

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