California’s Double Standard On Vouchers

(Credit: Annette Shaff/Shuttershock)

Lloyd Billingsley Policy Fellow, Independent Institute
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In California’s state capital of Sacramento, torrential rains and flooding have put the city’s surging homeless population into a state of crisis. Politicians are running to the rescue.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a former state senator, and county supervisor Phil Serna want to set aside “Housing Choice Vouchers” for about 800 of the slots that open up for public housing each year. Some 70,000 applicants are now on the waiting list. How well this will work is uncertain, but nobody questions the use of vouchers, which pay $870 a month for a one-bedroom and up to $1,935 for a four-bedroom unit.

Californians in need can also access a Housing Choice Voucher program, formerly known as Section 8, which assists low-income families. The program is funded by federal HUD dollars, but the vouchers do not require that the recipients seek government housing. Instead they may rent housing on the open market.

In similar style, California EBT, the Electronic Benefit Transfer program formerly known as food stamps, offers “manual vouchers” but does not require the recipient to shop at a government commissary. The same is true of the federal WIC program for women, infants and children.

California’s bipartisan political establishment supports these voucher programs and seeks to expand their clients. On the other hand, the establishment’s enthusiasm for vouchers does not extend to the state’s more than six million K-12 students and their families.

The 1993 Parental Choice in Education Initiative, Proposition 174, required the state to provide a voucher for every school-age child equal to at least half of what the state spent per-pupil in K-12 public schools. The students and parents could then choose the school, whether government or independent.

The ballot argument for the intiative, written by Bill Bennett, secretary of education under President Reagan, offered a compelling call to action: “Let’s take back control of our schools by breaking the iron grip of overpaid administrators, powerful union bosses and timid school board members.”

The reactionary education establishment unleashed its fury, led by the massive California Teachers Association (CTA). “There are some proposals that are so evil that they should never go before the voters,” explained CTA boss D. A. Weber.

When the Parental Choice In Education initiative qualified for the ballot, the CTA warned that it would create Ku Klucker schools, witch schools and such.  Foes of the measure included Pete Wilson, the state’s Republican governor, who believed that giving choice to parents could “worsen the state’s budget situation and jeopardize funding for education.”

Proposition 174 lost and the status quo prevailed. The state still gives education dollars directly to a bloated K-12 education bureaucracy, a vast collective farm of mediocrity and failure.

In recent years, California has ranked near the bottom in student achievement. About one-third of first-year state-college students need remedial math and English. Many students remain trapped in failed, dangerous schools, and the system protects pedophile teachers such as Mark Berndt, who fed his semen to kids in his class.

Parents might call it a crisis situation, but no politician is rushing to the rescue with a voucher plan. Governor Jerry Brown empowered government employee unions in his first go-round as governor, and he remains a champion of the education establishment.

California eagerly promotes housing and food vouchers for the homeless and unemployed but denies school-choice vouchers to embattled K-12 students and their families. Call it the double standard inherent in the system.

Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is the author of Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation, and Bill of Writes: Dispatches from the Political Correctness Battlefield.