School choice backers fail to put measure on California’s November ballot


School choice will not be on the ballot in November.

The man who led an initiative campaign to provide $14,000 per student for parents and guardians to select the private or religious school of their choice acknowledged that the drive fell substantially short of the signatures needed to put the measure before voters.

In an email to supporters last week, Michael Alexander, chair of California School Choice Initiative, said the campaign would collect about 200,000 signatures by the 180-day deadline for submitting them on April 11. That’s 20% of the required 997,000 verified signatures and less than a seventh of the campaign’s goal of 1.5 million signature to ensure the initiative would qualify.

“While that is far short of the number required, we can pride ourselves on an incredible effort,” he wrote, promising to try again in 2024.

Unlike a school voucher, which sends tuition money to the private school of a family’s choice, The Educational Freedom Act would have created an Education Savings Account on behalf of the parents.

They would have designated a private or religious school and applied any money left over after tuition and expenses like tutoring to save for post-high school graduation education plans, whether a vocational program or college.

The state would have funded the average state funding per student under the Local Control Funding Formula – $14,000 initially – through the General Fund and property taxes. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated the initiative would have cost the state between $4.7 billion to $7 billion annually. Eight states have adopted education savings accounts as of January 2021, according to the school choice advocacy organization EdChoice.

Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, Calif., Monday, May 1, 2017. Photos by Alison Yin for EdSource

Advocates were hoping dissatisfaction with remote learning and a slow restart to schools when Covid-19 receded would fuel support. Although two previous school choice initiatives in California — to create school vouchers — failed to get more than 30% of the vote in 1994 and 2000, a 2021 poll commissioned by California Policy Center,  a conservative think tank, found 54% of 800 voters surveyed said they’d support an education savings account initiative, 34% opposed and 12% were undecided.

“It should be an ideal year,” said Lance Christensen, vice president of education policy and government affairs for the center, who helped draft the initiative. “Parents feel really handicapped and limited by their choice for kids’ education and providing savings account to use for any school would have been huge blessing.”

But internal fissures, a lack of money and bad timing doomed chances that a measure would make the ballot, let alone have the resources to counter a multi-million effort to defeat it by the California Teachers Association.

A failure to reach agreement over wording initially led to two competing initiatives last year.

Fix California, led by Ric Grinell, former President Trump’s ambassador to Germany, backed out last fall, leaving one underfunded campaign.

Alexander, who previously led the Pasadena Patriots, an arm of the Tea Party, raised only $421,000 as of Dec. 31, with $400,000 from a single donor, Dale Broome, a radiologist from Redlands. That left the campaign without the estimated $7 million to $10 million needed to hire professional signature gatherers.

“Any major ballot proposition would have to have millions of dollars in bank before sending out the first petition. It’s nearly impossible to get an initiative on the ballot through volunteers,” said Christensen, who last month announced his own election campaign to challenge incumbent State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond in November. The omicron surge compounded the challenge of soliciting voters’ signature

In his email to supporters last week, Alexander acknowledged the initiative faced long odds. “Consider this for a moment: If 100 political consultants were asked to prepare a list of the 20 most difficult political projects in the state of California, ranking them by money required to qualify for the ballot, the amount of money that would be spent in opposition and the ferocity of the opposition, school choice would undoubtedly top the list as the most difficult and expensive,” he wrote.

But he said it could be done: “In the coming weeks, we will outline our strategy for ensuring that school choice is on the ballot in 2024. We plan to start gathering signatures again early in 2023. Fundraising for that effort has already begun.”

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