The great California school voucher massacre
How the Expensive and Sophisticated Anti-Prop 174 Campaign Turned Around Public Opinion and Left Opponents in the Dust
The concept behind Proposition 174 was relatively simple: the state would provide parents with an educational voucher for each school-aged child, figured at half the cost of educating a student in the public school system (about $2600) and redeemable at any private school that would accept the new pupil. It was supposed to be the harbinger of a new age in education: the introduction of a semi-privatization scheme that would make public schools responsive and efficient, while giving middle-income families the means to procure elite instruction for their children.
Polls showed California voters were receptive to the idea; the initiative dominated the education debate in the state for two years, forcing the public sector into a mad scramble for alternatives, defenses, and contingency plans. It leveraged state government into instituting its first public school choice system, after many years of insurmountable resistance. A scant seven weeks before Election Day, the measure trailed in the polls by margins scarcely more than the margins of error.
In the end, this once-promising craft was blown out of the sky in a 70 to 30 percent implosion by $10 million of carefully aimed paid media missiles. Assisting ground flak had been thrown by an unprecedented array of legislators, administrators, business groups, unions, environmentalists, editorialists and assorted goo-goos.
Was the dramatic nose-dive simply the product of overwhelming firepower expended by an entrenched opposition? Or was this particular vessel fatally flawed in its construction, with obvious chinks waiting to be breached? As one might suspect in a case of such dramatically lost altitude, the short answer is “both.”
Onto the Runway
The school voucher concept has been around for awhile: economist Milton Friedman first proposed such a plan more than 40 years ago. Pilot programs have been instituted in a few localities (most notably Detroit), but no state has yet incorporated vouchers into its educational system. Its most active proponents and financial backers have tended to be the business community, the Libertarian Party and innovators of the Republican Right.
Prop 174 was first incubated at the Reason Foundation, a Los-Angeles-based Libertarian think tank that hosted a series of seminars on the idea in early 1991. There, organizers hooked up with Joe Alibrandi, CEO of Whittaker Corp., a local aerospace firm. Long active in educational causes, Alibrandi agreed to head up a campaign to institute a voucher system by plebiscite.
Drafted by Libertarian lawyers — with contributions from various other experts, including Friedman — and confirmed for the ballot with the assistance of Gov. Pete Wilson (R), Prop 174 was originally slated to go before the people in the next regular state elections, scheduled for June, 1994. But Wilson was caught in a budget crisis, and needed to get voter approval for a half-cent sales tax extension in short order. Over the summer, he arranged to have pending state ballot questions considered in November, 1993, to coincide with several local elections being held across the state.
School choice advocates now lament this development, saying it did not give them enough time to raise the money needed to sell their idea, while the teacher unions poised to oppose it could drop their promised millions into the race almost instantly. They overlook the fact that such a special election was bound to hold down turnout, accentuating the influence of high-income voters, who tend to vote regardless of the ballot. As such voters were the core constituency of private schools, moving the election date up should have helped the voucher cause.
Given the likely turnout pattern, the target audience for campaign appeals was obvious: conservative, well-educated, GOP-leaning voters with a moderate tilt on social issues. It was a swing group that had deserted the Republican national ticket last year, turning normally bellwether California into Bill Clinton’s ace-in-the-hole.
Wrecking Crew Assignments
It should have come as no surprise then when the union-dominated opposition to 174 hired Bob Nelson as their top dragonslayer. A veteran GOP strategist, Nelson now gravitates heavily toward ballot issue campaigns — particularly after heading up the national “Republicans for Clinton” last year. Rick Manter, Nelson’s choice for nuts-and-bolts manager, had just Finished performing the same duties for Bruce Herschensohn, the Republican Right darling whose long shot U.S. Senate campaign had come surprisingly close to success. Media went to John Franzen, a Washington, D.C. producer with close ties to the national Democratic Party and labor. The Democratic firm of Mellman, Lazarus & Lake were tapped for polling because of their experience with spot-testing focus groups. “This campaign made more extensive use of research and pre-testing than any I’ve ever heard of,” Franzen marvels.
Clearly, that research pointed away from emphasis on class issues, such as the “welfare for the rich” rap that ignited the liberal Democratic core. Instead, the anti- message was concentrated on two points persuasive with financially secure swing voters, here presented in an ad featuring popular State Controller Gray Davis
1) Cost: “With all our budget problems, the last thing California needs is a new, billion-dollar entitlement program. Yet that’s what we’d have under Proposition 174.”
2) Accountability: “It lets voucher schools operate with no real teaching standards, and no public disclosure of what they do with our tax money.”
Retirees — another group prone to vote in special elections — were singled out for special attention, with mailings and broadcast ads that insisted Prop 174 would create enormous pressure for a tax increase. Some populist appeals that exploited the perceived elitism of private schools and resentment of the rich were also made, but used either sparingly or in highly targeted applications, such as video mailers to activists.
The attacks on 174 were difficult to defend. True to its Libertarian roots, 174 would have significantly deregulated private education and made it virtually impossible for the state to move back in the other direction. And while supporters insisted that the program would quickly become revenue-positive for the state, most experts estimated that would take a doubling of the private school enrollment to around 20 percent of the total — a highly-speculative prospect.
The pro-voucher campaign was carried by the Excellent Choice Education League (EXCEL), skippered by former Reagan speechwriter Ken Kachigian and communicated by Joe Weber — brother of New Right avatar Vin Weber. Prominent backers seemed limited to former COP cabinet members: Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett, George Schultz and Lamar Alexander. The EXCEL team resolutely tried to stay on the offense, harping on the distressful state of public education while generally dismissing attacks as the work of “unions and bureaucrats.”
Puttin’ on the Blitz
With recent polls showing them with only single-digit leads, anti-voucher forces let loose with their first two TV ads on September 21. One opens with a light bulb being turned on, with the announcement of “a bright idea.” After the faults of 174 are cited, the bulb is extinguished with the suggestion that the “bright idea” turned out to be a “turnoff.” The second ad makes the same points, delivered by a grown-up Valley Girl identified as a PTA president.
For three weeks, the anti-voucher TV assault went unanswered as a six-point margin against the measure swelled to 36. President Clinton weighed in on October 4, telling an AFL-CIO convention in San Francisco that Californians would later “regret |174~ if they pass it.” The next day, Gov. Wilson finally came off the fence, declaring that while he supported the concept of school choice, 174 could cost the state up to $1.6 billion, a risk “I cannot responsibly advocate taking.”
With other politicians beginning to circle for their cuts like birds of carrion, Kachigian blasted business for “wimping out” on the school choice movement. It was the anguished cry of a coach who looks up from a six-touchdown deficit in the third quarter, only to find the home crowd scrambling for the exits. The only question left was the margin. Lusting for a powerhouse ranking, CTA insisted on running up a score that would leave vouchers with the political credibility of Harold Stassen.
There was little EXCEL could do, given the vulnerabilities of its document and enormous funding disadvantages. The lone TV ad for 174 fast aired on Columbus Day, replaying snippets of anti- ads as it decried the massive expenditures of opponents. Referring to SAT scores, it observes that “With our public schools scoring worse than Mississippi’s, we’ve got to do something.” It was never seen in the Bay Area at all, Kachigian’s total TV budget ($550,000) being less than a tenth the size of Nelson’s air assault.
Conditions were no more competitive on the ground down the stretch. By Election Day, anti- forces had made 700,000 GOTV phone calls and mailed out a million absentee ballot requests. Just when it appeared there was no way to go but up for 174, a covert of witches in Contra Costa County announced they would open a voucher school if the initiative passed, with herbalism and witchcraft in the curriculum.
Toil and trouble kept bubbling over for the voucher movement until Election Day, when it was burned at the stake.
Prop’s Progress: Readings on the school voucher battle from the
Los Angeles Times Poll
Nov. 2 Mid-Sept. Mid-Oct.
For 39% 27% 30%
Against 45 66 70
Undecided 16 7 —
Source: The September figures refer to a survey of 896
registered voters interviewed Sept. 10-13. October numbers
represent 531 likely voters interviewed Oct. 16-19.
The Toteboard: Budgets, consultants & votes on the school voucher question
For: Ken Kachigian Against: Nelson Communications
Media For: Powell & Weber Against: John Franzen Multimedia
Polling For: Steinberg & Assoc Against: Mellman, Lazarus & Lake
Direct Mail For: Powell & Weber Against: Nelson Communications
$ Spent (est.) For: $3,800,000(*) Against: $19,000,000(*)
Votes For: 1,452,392 Against: 3,336,763
$ per Vote For: $2.62 Against: $5.69
* Projections based upon receipts reported through October 16.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group