Not So Fast

With so much attention devoted to yesterday’s gubernatorial recall election, relatively few Californians are aware of efforts underway to place an ambitious and sure-to-be-controversial school choice initiative before the state’s voters in 2022. The proposed amendments to the state constitution would establish state-administered education savings accounts (ESAs) for every child eligible for enrollment in any of grades K-12, inclusive, upon request of the child’s parents or guardians. Funded at an initial level of $13,000 per-student-per-year, ESA proceeds can be used to pay for tuition and qualified education expenses at an accredited private school of a parent or guardian’s choosing. Any funds remaining in an ESA upon a student’s graduation from high school can, to a maximum amount of $50,000, be to pay college- or vocational school-related expenses.

If that strikes you as a proposal the California Association of Private School Organizations (CAPSO) would be sure to support…think again. At the risk of playing Debbie Downer, I need to point out that support from the organization that regards itself as “the voice of California’s private schools” is no slam dunk. In fact, it’s questionable. Here’s why…

First, CAPSO is a nonpartisan coalition of organizations representing schools whose cultures and teaching reflect philosophically, politically, and religiously diverse viewpoints. To give CAPSO’s respect for diverse viewpoints concrete form, the Association’s bylaws require agreement among representatives of all member-organizations in order for formal positions of support or opposition to pending legislation, judicial or administrative proceedings, and/or matters of public policy to be taken in CAPSO’s name. Rather than creating an impediment to action, this “Unanimity Principle,” has provided CAPSO with an enduring source of solidarity and focus.

When CAPSO is unable to establish unanimity, no member is enjoined from expressing its own views in the public arena. Indeed, CAPSO encourages its members to express such views, even though they may diverge, or conflict. (And isn’t it refreshing to know that leaders who hold differing beliefs and policy orientations display respect and affection for one another?)

What is it, then, about the education savings account initiative that may fail to pass muster among one or more CAPSO member organizations? For one, the initiative pays lip service to the principle of preferential treatment for those in greatest economic need. As the text explains, ESAs “…will be available to the lowest income families the first two years, middle income families the next two years, and all remaining families thereafter.” In other words, by the time the program reaches its fifth year, all students will receive the same benefit regardless of whether they hail from families living in abject poverty or outright opulence. Some CAPSO members will find this lack of distinction philosophically and/or religiously objectionable.

That objection may be compounded by a feature of the proposed initiative that excludes personal contributions to ESAs from gross income for purposes of state income tax computation. It would be one thing if the tax benefit was extended for contributions on behalf of other people’s children (i.e., those hailing from low-income households), but in its current form the tax break heavily, if not exclusively favors the wealthy. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to imagine the manner in which opponents will portray this feature of the initiative.

Another element some CAPSO member-organizations may find objectionable is that the proposed ESAs will be financed in a manner that is likely to harm students whose families opt to keep them in the state’s public schools. Lest such concern strike some as odd, it should be borne in mind that CAPSO has always held private schools out as partners in the education of the public. A claim to partnership is suspect in the absence of concern for the welfare of one’s partners, and lopping a statewide average per-pupil figure off of a given public school district’s budget is problematic in a state that allocates more dollars for the education of low-income students and English Learners than it does for others. In its current form, some private school leaders will see the initiative doing damage to these students, students requiring special education and related services, and others.

Finally, there may well be CAPSO-member organizations that, while having no objection to the initiative’s content, may fear the regulatory response invited by its existence. Amidst the seemingly never-ending torrent of COVID-19 related government mandates, directives and guidance foisted upon schools, it is easy to forget that in more normal times California’s private schools enjoy a political environment that is largely permissive. The California Education Code requires only that students attending private schools receive instruction from “persons capable of teaching.” The law specifies no minimum number of days in a school year, no specified curriculum, methods of instruction, or means of assessment. California private schools need not undergo accreditation, and are not accountable to any agency of the state.

Of course, all of that could change, and what greater inducement to an unwelcome expansion of state regulation (in a deep blue state such as California) than to channel state funds to private schools via education savings accounts? So, yes…some private school leaders have reservations.

In the event that you, dear reader, have concluded that CAPSO can only say ‘no’ when it comes to school choice legislation in California, well…no! In fact, CAPSO adopted a position paper on “Principles Governing Parental Choice of Schools Legislation” that, yes, satisfied the association’s unanimity principle. Getting there required good will, reflection, balance and compromise. And while such noble qualities don’t always win out against the exercise of raw political power, they ought not be lightly surrendered when pursuing public policy that promotes the common good.

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessary represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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