David Lopez didn’t need to explain his growing frustration with public schools to the small crowd gathered at a Canyon Hills Assembly of God hall.
Lopez and his wife, Lillian Lopez, are leading the local effort to collect signatures for a new statewide ballot initiative that promises to give parents more control over their children’s education. The Freedom of Education Act does this by providing $14,000 a year to each student who leaves the public school system – either to be spent in private school or saved for post-secondary education and training.
Crowds in Canyon Hills on Tuesday night shared David’s anger with public schools and were eager to hear how in Kern County they could help collect 1 million signatures so the initiative qualifies for the ballot. November 2022 statewide.
But Lopez has always pointed to problems in public schools that have irked local conservative Christians, including him and his wife Lillian Lopez. The couple are Kern County co-chairs of the California School Choice Committee, which pioneered the Education Freedom Act.
Topping the list were state-imposed mandates during the pandemic, particularly Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent order that all students be vaccinated against COVID-19, pending full FDA approval of the vaccine. . David also referenced California’s emphasis on promoting LGBT rights in schools and ethnic studies in its curriculum guidelines.
“It’s time for a change,” Lopez told the crowd. “The temperature is rising in the state, and it’s coming to a tipping point.”
California’s current public school system has been overtaken by vested interests, including teachers’ unions, David said. This ballot initiative puts parents in control, allowing them to use taxpayer dollars for their children’s education in a way that better aligns with their moral values.
Lillian, whose daughter attends the Bakersfield City School District, helped lead the recent effort to allow parents to opt out of anti-bullying lessons that involve LGBTQ content.
“Parents have the right to teach children whatever they want,” Lillian said.
How it works
Since Proposition 98 of 1988, public schools receive a base amount per student. This school year it was $13,465. It’s not all the money schools have, but it’s money the Freedom of Education Act wants to put into college savings accounts for every student.
Parents who pull their students out of public school — or who don’t have their students in public school in the first place — could request an annual bond from their college savings account each year. It would start at $14,000 in 2023-24. This money could be used to pay tuition, fees, or other expenses at an accredited private or religious school.
Any remaining funds would remain in the account. It could possibly be used for higher education or vocational school. This is essential for parents who choose to homeschool their students. They too would also be eligible for education savings accounts. They could let their money accumulate until they are interested in using it, whether it’s high school, college, or a job training program.
Students attending public school would not receive money in these accounts. Their Proposition 98 funds would go directly to the school they attend, as is the case now.
Proponents of the initiative said it was simply a way to pay back taxpayers’ money so parents can use it as they see fit.
“You’re paying for what they’re happy to call education,” said Mike Alexander, statewide president of Californians for School Choice. “The only question is whether you will get it.”
Disagreement over vouchers
David said the Freedom of Education Act should have bipartisan appeal because it would also force public schools to improve, vying for students and all the taxes they bring in.
The theory is based on free market principles. When parents have the ability to shop for a school with taxpayer dollars, they will be supported in a new way by the public school system, Alexander said. At present, children are “locked in a state monopoly”.
Luis Huerta, professor of education and public policy at Teachers College Columbia University, conducts research focused on school choice efforts, including good ones. He said that although vouchers continue to be politically popular, three decades of research on other states with vouchers have not supported claims that they are driving reform.
Students who move from public to private schools do not necessarily achieve better results. He cited research in Louisiana and Ohio showing that sometimes they fare worse. He said the good performance of students in private schools was due to their family, income and other factors, not the school itself.
“There is no ‘private school effect,'” Huerta said.
He also noted that the Freedom of Education Act is structured differently than other programs because there is no means test. Voucher programs that have been adopted in other states tend to target low-income students or students from underperforming schools — at least initially.
The Office of the Legislative Analyst reviewed the program and noted that the immediate beneficiaries of this program would be many of the 555,000 students currently attending private school or homeschooling who would apply for this program’s funds. There is no resource test in the initiative, so everyone would be eligible. If 90% of those students applied, it would cost the state $9 billion a year.
“The state would generally pay for these costs by reducing existing funding for public schools (as permitted by the measure) and/or reducing other state programs supported by the State’s General Fund,” said the Office of Legislative Analysts fiscal impact report.
Huerta said the move provides “another right for those who attend private schools.”
The initiative’s website addresses this problem by stating that most high-wage earners “pay nearly all of the funding for K-12 education.”
“The majority of the top 20% of earners do not have children in K-12 and would not benefit financially,” the site states in an FAQ section. “Putting all K-12 students in California on equal financial footing is extremely fair.”
California has already considered similar initiatives. In 1993, 69.56 percent of Californians rejected Proposition 174, which would have given parents half of the previous year’s per-student spending on tuition. Proposition 38, a measure that would provide parents with $4,000 vouchers, was flatly defeated in 2000 with 70.6 votes against.
Alexander and David singled out groups like the California Teachers Association as naysayers that helped frustrate past efforts. (A CTA representative said he does not comment on measures that did not qualify for the ballot.) But Huerta noted that private schools themselves have been major foes against good efforts, at the both in California and in other states. Catholic schools in California opposed Proposition 38.
Huerta said the private school economy can be disrupted by vouchers. This could lead to higher tuition fees, and it is unclear whether the voucher would cover the funds needed to allow private schools to expand. Many private schools may not want to expand — they may want to keep the small environment they have now, he said.
But Alexander, who was part of the 2000 effort, said he believes the initiative will be more successful than previous years due to the current political climate. He noted the statewide school strike on Monday to protest the impending school vaccination mandate. Some school districts in Kern County saw attendance drop 25% on the day of the protest.
“Parents are tired of schools not opening, school boards not listening to them,” Alexander said. “The only real option is school choice.”
Lillian said her group will reach out to other churches for support. But the heart of the local effort is Canyon Hills Assembly of God. The church’s harvest festival on October 31 will kick off the local signature-raising effort.