Will Schwarzenegger Support School Choice?

Arnold will likely follow Bush's model

Last week Schwarzenegger told NBC’s Matt Lauer, “I think children should have the first call on the budget.” It turns out in California they do-with the 2003-2004 California budget including $45.7 billion for K-14 education spending alone-representing a $1.7 billion or 4 percent increase from 2002-2003. However, as both parents and government officials know, children can often break the bank, and money can’t necessarily buy love or student achievement.

In fact, on the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam, just 21 percent of California fourth-graders scored at or above the “proficient” level. The national rate was 30 percent. More specifically, in Los Angeles, 67 percent of students scored below basic turning in the second worst performance in the nation behind Washington D.C. at 69 percent. The release of California’s 2003 test scores found 925 California schools not meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP). California AYP only requires that 13.6 percent of elementary children and 11.2 percent of high school students be proficient in reading and math. Thousands of children are now eligible for the public-school choice provision under the No Child Left Behind Act. Yet, California has a shortage of better public schools for these kids to transfer into. In the public school sector, these children have nowhere to go.

With vast amounts of taxpayer spending equaling poor performance for California’s children, the crucial question for Arnold becomes: What will he do with the children stuck in record numbers of low-performing schools despite high levels of taxpayer investment in education? Will he spend more or let them out?

We can extrapolate some of Schwarzenegger’s potential education policy from the company he keeps. Pete Wilson opposed proposition 174, the first statewide California school voucher initiative, but later proposed a more moderate voucher plan similar to Governor Jeb Bush’s Florida Opportunity Scholarship Plan, that allows students in failing schools to use vouchers to attend the private or public school of their choice. Similarly, Mayor Riordan opposed Tim Draper’s proposition 38, California’s second failing statewide voucher initiative, but supported private school vouchers for low-income children through the Los Angeles Children’s Scholarship Fund. Arnold has Internet photos with Tim Draper at various children’s charitable functions and recently co-hosted an Education Summit with Education Secretary Rod Paige, who just last week came out in favor of vouchers in the Wall Street Journal. And of course Schwarzenegger has been a prominent supporter of President Bush, who at least pays lip service to the benefits of school choice.

These associations, however, are no guarantee of Arnold becoming a school choice advocate. Yet, it is likely that Arnold would support more school competition and parental choice than the current administration. And with more Democrats like Dianne Feinstein, Joe Lieberman, and DC Mayor Anthony Williams breaking ranks with the union and coming out in favor of vouchers in D.C. and other low-performing urban cities, it makes a Schwarzenegger pro-choice position seem almost moderate.

So while Schwarzenegger will not likely support a full-scale voucher or tax credit scheme to privatize education there are several moderate proposals he could imitate:

  • He could drastically increase the number of charter schools in California by letting local government, Universities, and nonprofits authorize and monitor the schools.
  • He could let organizations bid to run failing schools similar to the Philadelphia approach, that has universities, nonprofits, and for-profit companies managing the city’s worst-performing schools.
  • He could initiate a state-wide voucher program a la’ Colorado Governor Bill Owens and Florida Governor Jeb Bush that allows students in failing schools to use vouchers in private or public schools.
  • He could institute a tax credit program like Arizona, Florida, or Pennsylvania that allows individuals and corporations to take a tax-credit for donations to charitable organizations that provide private scholarships to low-income and minority students.
  • He could take advantage of President Bush’s proposed $75 million school choice pilot project by offering up a city such as Compton, Oakland, or even Los Angeles as a test city for federally funded school vouchers.

The bottom line is that Arnold will likely follow the George W. school-choice model. The President has been the supporter of more choices in education, including the Washington D.C voucher plan, public school choice, and the private tutoring vouchers for children in failing schools, while simultaneously pumping billions more federal dollars into public education. We know from experience with Proposition 49 that when it comes to children Arnold is not averse to spending taxpayer dollars. Arnold will likely continue record levels of education spending while opening up moderate choice options for children in failing public schools. Hence, one key question for Arnold will be how he intends to utilize choice and competition to stretch the public dollar while increasing accountability and performance. I will be listening very closely for that answer.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.