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Frustrated Kern residents stump for taxpayer funds to exit public school system

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David Lopez, co-chair for the California School Choice Committee in Kern County, spoke to a group gathered at Canyon Hills Assembly of God about the Education Freedom Act on Tuesday night.

David Lopez didn't need to explain his growing frustration against public schools to the small crowd gathered in a Canyon Hills Assembly of God hall.

Lopez and his wife, Lillian Lopez, are leading the local effort to gather signatures for a new statewide ballot initiative that promises to give parents more control of their children's education. The Education Freedom Act does this by providing $14,000 annually for each student who exits the public school system — either to be spent toward private school or saved for post-secondary education and training.

The crowd at Canyon Hills on Tuesday night shared David's ire with public schools and was eager to learn about how in Kern County they could help to gather 1 million signatures so that the initiative would qualify for the November 2022 statewide ballot.

But Lopez still outlined issues in public schools that have rankled local conservative Christians, including him and his wife Lillian Lopez. The pair serve as co-chairs in Kern County for the California School Choice Committee, which is behind the Education Freedom Act.

At the top of the list were state-imposed mandates during the pandemic, particularly Gov. Gavin Newsom's recent order that all students be vaccinated against COVID-19, pending full FDA approval of the vaccine. David also referenced California's emphasis on promoting LGBT rights in schools and ethnic studies in its curriculum guidelines.

"It's time for change," Lopez told the crowd. "The temperature is rising in the state, and it's coming to a tipping point."

California's current public school system has been overtaken by special interests, including teachers unions, David said. This ballot initiative gives parents control, allowing them to use tax dollars toward their children's education in a way that is better aligned with their moral values.

Lillian, whose daughter attends the Bakersfield City School District, helped spearhead the recent effort to allow parents to opt out of anti-bullying lessons that involve LGBTQ content.

"Parents have a right to teach kids what they want to," Lillian said.

How it works

Since 1988's Proposition 98, public schools receive a base amount of money per pupil. This school year that was $13,465. This is not all of the money schools have, but it is the money the Education Freedom Act wants to be put into educational savings accounts for each student.

Parents who take their students out of public school — or don't have their students in public school in the first place — would be able to apply for a yearly voucher from their educational savings account every year. It would begin at $14,000 in 2023-24. That money could be used to pay tuition, fees or other expenses at an accredited private or religious school.

Any leftover funds would remain in the account. It could eventually be used for higher education or vocational school. That's key for parents who choose to homeschool their students. They, too, would also be eligible for educational savings accounts. They could allow their money to accumulate until they are interested in using it — whether high school, college or a job training program.

Students who attend public school would not receive money in these accounts. Their Proposition 98 funds would go directly to the school they attend, as it does now.

Proponents of the initiative said that this is simply a way of returning tax money so that parents can use it in a way they see fit.

"You pay for what they are pleased to call education," said Mike Alexander, statewide chair of Californians for School Choice. "The only question is whether you will get it."

Disagreement about vouchers

David said the Education Freedom Act should have bipartisan appeal because it would also force public schools to improve, by competing for students and all the tax dollars they bring.

The theory is premised on free-market principles. When parents are given the opportunity to shop for a school with tax dollars, they will be catered to in a new way by the public school system, Alexander said. Right now children are "locked into a state-owned monopoly."

Luis Huerta, a professor of Education and Public Policy at Teachers College Columbia University, conducts research focusing on school choice efforts, including vouchers. He said that although vouchers continue to be politically popular, three decades of research on other states with vouchers has not backed the claims that they spur reform.

Students who move from public schools to private schools don't necessarily perform better. He cited research in Louisiana and Ohio demonstrating that sometimes they fare worse. He said students' high performance in private schools is because of their family, income and other factors — not the school itself.

"There is no 'private school effect,'" Huerta said.

He also noted the Education Freedom Act is structured differently than other programs, since there is no means testing. Voucher programs that have passed in other states tend to target low-income students or students in low-performing schools — at least initially.

The Legislative Analyst's Office reviewed the program and noted that the immediate beneficiaries of this program would be many of the 555,000 students who are currently in private school or homeschool who would apply for the funds in this program. There is no means testing in the initiative, so everyone would be eligible. If 90 percent of these students applied, it would cost the state $9 billion annually.

"The state generally would pay for these costs through reductions to existing funding for public schools (as the measure allows) and/or reductions to other state programs supported by the state General Fund," stated the Legislative Analyst Office's fiscal impact report.

Huerta said this initiative offers "another entitlement for those that are in private schools."

The initiative's website addresses this by stating that most high-wage earners "pay nearly all of the funding for K-12 education."

"The majority of the upper 20 percent wage earners do not have children in K-12 education and would be drawing no financial benefit," states the site in an FAQ section. "Putting all K-12 California students on equal financial footing is extremely fair."

Voucher history

California has considered similar initiatives before. In 1993, 69.56 percent of Californians voted down Proposition 174, which would have granted parents half the amount of the previous year's per-pupil spending for tuition. Proposition 38, a measure that would offer parents $4,000 vouchers, was roundly defeated in 2000 with 70.6 voting against it.

Alexander and David pointed to groups like the California Teachers Association as opponents who helped tank past efforts. (A CTA representative stated that it does not comment on measures that have not qualified for the ballot.) But Huerta noted that private schools themselves have been major foes against voucher efforts, both in California and other states. Catholic schools in California opposed Proposition 38.

Huerta said the economics of private schools can be disrupted by vouchers. It could cause tuition to rise, and it's not clear whether the voucher would cover the funds to allow private schools to expand. Many private schools may not want to expand — they may want to retain the small environment they have now, he said.

But Alexander, who was part of the 2000 effort, said that he believes this initiative will be more successful than previous years because of the current political climate. He noted the statewide school walkout on Monday in protest of the impending vaccine mandate in schools. Some school districts in Kern County saw attendance drop 25 percent on the day of the protest.

"Parents are fed up with schools that won’t open, school boards that won’t listen to them," Alexander said. "The only real option is school choice."

Lillian said that her group will be reaching out to other churches for their support. But the heart of the local effort is Canyon Hills Assembly of God. The church's Harvest Festival on Oct. 31 will be the grand kick-off of the local signature-gathering effort.

You can reach Emma Gallegos at 661-395-7394. 

Coronavirus Cases widget

  • Positive Cases Among Kern Residents: 158,009

  • Deaths: 1,814

  • Recovered and Presumed Recovered Residents: 150,579 

  • Percentage of all cases that are unvaccinated: 92.04

  • Percentage of all hospitalizations that are unvaccinated: 92.61