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Thursday, 27 July, 2000, 17:24 GMT 18:24 UK
Vote on biggest voucher plan
In the UK, a vouchers scheme was abolished by the government
Californians are to vote on proposals for the biggest ever experiment in school vouchers in the United States.

Proposition 38, which will be put before voters in November, proposes a $4,000 voucher for parents to spend on private education for their children.

And supporters of the proposal, which could pump billions of state dollars into private schools, say that polls put them narrowly ahead of those campaigning against the vouchers.

Arguments for and against the radical scheme have already taken to the airwaves, with campaigners producing television and radio adverts in English and Spanish.

Unlike voucher schemes which target funds at the poor, this state funding would be available to every parent of the over six million children in state schools in California, regardless of income.

$7bn for private schools

Parents who already have children in private schools would also receive the $4,000, which opponents of vouchers say would mean $7bn of state funds being used each year to subsidise private schools.

There is also controversy over the proposal that the voucher scheme would apply to parents wanting to send their children to private religious schools.

Opponents of the voucher proposal argue that this breaches the block on promoting religion through state-funded education.

Advocates of the scheme argue that vouchers would allow parents to remove children from failing schools, giving them the option of buying a higher standard of education within the state system.

But opponents have attacked the scheme as a "cruel hoax", which will leave the state school system under-funded and run down and unable to serve the majority of students who would still need to be taught in state school.

'Giant step backwards'

The state governor, Gray Davis, has rejected the proposal, saying that it will jeopardise the improvements achieved in state schools. School vouchers would be "a giant step backwards," said Mr Davis.

The proposal, sponsored by venture capitalist, Tim Draper, will appeal to parents concerned by the underachievement of California's state schools.

The state has suffered from crumbling school buildings, overcrowding, mixed academic results and a shortage of teachers - problems which the state has been trying to turn around.

Mr Davis points to a recent record of improving grades, cutting class sizes and initiatives to recruit teachers and will call on parents to reject the voucher scheme.

School vouchers have become a policy associated with right wing politicians and think-tanks - with the belief that vouchers would introduce market forces within the education system.

There are voucher schemes running in Florida; Milwaukee in Wisconsin and Cleveland in Ohio, but these limit payments to low-income families or children in failing schools.

In the United Kingdom, the current government abolished a vouchers scheme for parents of nursery-age pupils introduced by the previous Conservative administration.

The Californian scheme would break new ground with its availability to all parents and would have a much greater impact on the state sector.

Opponents of the vouchers claim that the scheme would take away money from the state system, which would mean larger class sizes and fewer teachers.

But proponents argue that vouchers will give parents greater choice and freedom in selecting schools for their children and will raise overall educational standards in the state.

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See also:

01 Mar 00 | Education
School violence rises in California
06 Jan 00 | Education
California offers cash to best pupils
02 Jun 00 | Education
Teachers reject tax exemption
15 May 00 | Education
Tax-free teachers plan
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