Republicans set for battle on vouchers

19th January 1996 at 00:00
United States. Reforms proposed by California's state governor will be fought by teachers' associations, reports Tim Cornwell. Single-sex education, including all-male "empowerment academies" for boys and a voucher scheme to allow children to attend private schools, have been proposed by California's Republican governor Pete Wilson.

Governor Wilson called for "opportunity scholarships" to families of children at the worst public schools so that they can attend the religious, private or public schools of their choice.

He outlined what was effectively a limited school voucher plan for students in the bottom 5 per cent of state schools as measured by standardised test scores. His staff estimate that up to 250,000 of California's five million public school pupils would be eligible.

There are too many schools failing to provide our children the education they deserve and need, Governor Wilson said as he outlined his legislative agenda in his annual state of the state speech: "No child should be trapped in these failing schools because their parents can't afford an alternative."

In 1993 the governor, then a US senator, and the California Teachers Association combined to defeat a ballot proposal that would have imposed a voucher system throughout the state. But Wilson opposed the earlier measure only because of its high cost, estimated at $2 billion (Pounds 1.29 billion), a spokesman said, and the governor is now likely to be at loggerheads with teachers' organisations.

His proposal would give parents of children going to private schools cheques equivalent to 90 per cent of the amount the state pays to educate each pupil, about $4,500.

Voucher systems have run into widespread opposition from teachers' unions and have been challenged in court, particularly where they include religious schools.

But Governor Wilson, a former presidential candidate, will have the likely backing of Republicans who took over the California state assembly this month after 25 years out of power.

Kurt Pringle, California's new Republican speaker, said a voucher bill was already in the works that "targets a low-income community that has a very poor public education system and allows those families to move their kids out and put them in a school where they can get an education."

In another signal of conservative thinking on schools, Governor Wilson also outlined his backing for single sex education at what he called all-male empowerment academies as well as girls schools offering the opportunity to concentrate on maths and science.

"Some cities around the nation have found success with all-male classrooms for at-risk boys. There, strong male teachers serve as an alternative to gang leaders," he said.

The California Teachers Association faces another battle with Republicans in the state assembly. Along with social workers and legal activists, the CTA has come out against a controversial corporal punishment bill allowing the "paddling" of juvenile graffiti vandals.

The bill cleared a first hurdle when it won backing from the Republican majority in the state assembly's public safety committee. It would allow a judge to order a parent or bailiff to whack children up to ten times with a half-inch- thick wooden paddle. "I'm just giving a tool to the judge, an appropriate punishment for a child he feels needs a little rod," said the bill's sponsor, Assemblyman Mickey Conroy. His bill would allow the judge "to threaten the little monster if he so desires," Conroy said.

* The number of first-year students planning to become elementary or secondary teachers has reached its highest level since the early 1970s, according to a new report.

The 1995 National Freshman Survey shows 9.7 per cent of freshmen - 13 per cent of women and 5.8 per cent of men - want to be teachers, compared with a low of only 4.9 per cent for both sexes in 1982. At a time when student surveys show a steady and disturbing decline in political interests among students, it suggests that they want to make a change but are choosing education to do it, said the survey's associate director Linda Sax.

The national survey is conducted annually by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. The 240,000 students at 473 institutions were polled in September and their questionnaires were used to compute national norms for the 1.5 million American first-year college students.

In 1969 polls showed 36 per cent of women first-years planned to become teachers. Over the next five years that percentage plunged. By 1975 it was just 10 per cent, but after further declines has begun to creep back up.

Not all the news in the new survey shed so favourable a light on education. The highest number of students ever, 33 per cent, reported being frequently bored in class in their last year of high school.

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