When Timothy Draper became frustrated with the public schools, he did what many parents have done: He yanked his kids out of the system and put them in private academies.

But Draper is not just any dad. He is a Type A Silicon Valley venture capitalist worth millions, a heavy in Republican fundraising circles and a self-described "freedom fighter." And so he opened his checkbook and vowed to spend whatever it takes to revolutionize education in the Golden State with a far-reaching school voucher initiative he is putting before the voters this fall.

The Draper measure, if it passes, would almost overnight radically transform education in California. While there have been modest experiments with voucher programs in cities such as Milwaukee and Cleveland--whereby taxpayer money is used to pay tuitions at private schools--the measure in California is audacious. The initiative would offer to all parents, regardless of income, $4,000 of taxpayer money for each child who attends a private school.

The voucher initiative promises to dominate the November elections here, and it raises the possibility that it could draw voters to the polls, perhaps tipping the scales not only for congressional candidates, but for Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

The two presidential candidates will almost inevitably be sucked into the California vortex where money and policy collide. When Bush was asked about the California voucher measure on a talk show Sunday, he declined to take a position.

But that may be difficult. Among the voucher backers is Bush's former GOP primary rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose name will likely appear on pro-voucher arguments sent to voters.

"Let Bush try to weenie out of that," said Garry South, the top political adviser to California Gov. Gray Davis (D), who is opposed to the voucher measure. "He can't do it. Bush is going to have to take a stand." And Democratic stalwarts such as Davis plan to use the issue to make Bush seem like a right-winger and not a moderate, which could cost the Texas governor a win in California.

Gore so far has not spoken about the state's voucher measure, which is probably to his advantage, analysts say, because many working-class voters may be attracted to the $4,000 voucher.

So once again, in a bold stroke, California is flexing its muscle in a way that will affect educational reform around the nation--and tip national politics. The voucher initiative here will test voters on their most basic feelings about the value of public schools and their hunger for reform. It will also test Bush and Gore. And if the measure passes, it will almost inevitably head toward the federal courts for a test of its constitutionality.

Unlike the other voucher experiments, the California initiative does not concern itself only with poor children attending public schools where test scores are low. The measure would offer to all parents, regardless of income, the ability to transfer $4,000 of taxpayer money for each child who attends a private school. It is a universal voucher, meaning it does not matter if the child getting the $4,000 is the daughter of a millionaire or the millionaire's maid.

There are about 6 million children in public schools in California, and every one of them would be eligible to take the money and apply it toward tuition at any private school, be it run by Catholics, Jews or the Nation of Islam. The 600,000 children already attending private schools in California would also be eligible to receive the $4,000 each, phased in over several years.

How big will the fight over the voucher initiative be? If he is vigorously opposed, as he will be by the teachers unions, Draper promises to put at least $20 million of his own money into the campaign, money that will likely be matched dollar for dollar by the teachers and other opponents of the measure--with all the combatants pouring as much as $50 million into the fight.

Such a sum is huge. For perspective, consider that the Republican and Democratic national committees combined have $88 million going into the fall elections--money that will be spread out to help congressional candidates as well as Bush and Gore.

Vouchers "will eclipse everything else," says Pat Rosenstiel, campaign manager for Draper's School Vouchers 2000 effort. As for the spending, which will pay not only for a carpet-bombing TV campaign but buy direct mail and get-out-the-vote efforts, Rosenstiel said each side will spend $20 million "at a minimum." Advertisements for and against will saturate the airwaves.

"We're not bringing a knife to a gunfight," Rosenstiel says. His opponents in the teachers unions? "They're not going to have clean airtime. We're going to be aggressive on the air, on the ground, on the Internet. They've never seen an adversary like us before."

Opponents such as South, Davis's political adviser, label the voucher measure "the biggest turkey on the ballot. Terribly written. Poorly constructed. A fraud." South and other opponents of the Draper initiative say it would cost the state taxpayers billions of dollars and provide no accountability--as private schools operate with less oversight than public schools in terms of their policies on testing, safety, teacher qualifications and discrimination.

Draper and his supporters vigorously disagree. They contend that the vouchers will save the public money and make both private and public schools better--and give parents complete freedom of choice as consumers.

There is both opportunity and peril for both candidates for the White House. Gore is generally opposed to vouchers, while Bush is generally supportive. His brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), has been pushing them in the Sunshine State.

Rank-and-file public school teachers, who believe the voucher plan would not only harm their schools but also lead to a massive transfer of students to private schools--which could cost them jobs and salaries--will come out to vote against the initiative. That would be good for Gore. But social and Christian conservatives, who like vouchers because they offer parents choice and would pay for their children to attend religious schools, might come to the polls to support the measure and stick around and vote for Bush, who is running more as a moderate in the state.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate University in Los Angeles, points out that elections in California are often determined by turnout. "Almost everything revolves around who shows up on Election Day," she says.

Also, Latinos and African Americans, who traditionally support Democrats like Gore, also like vouchers. What do they do? Complicating matters for Gore in California is the possible strength of Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, who could take between 5 and 10 percent of the vote.

"My gut tells me that Hispanics are probably for vouchers and we're going to be testing that assumption," says Antonio Gonzalez, director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a nonpartisan group. "I mean, the best possible case for vouchers is LAUSD," the Los Angeles Unified School District. That district recently replaced a Latino school superintendent and has some of the most overcrowded and poorly performing schools in the state. Its student population is more than 70 percent Hispanic.

"It's almost an argument for vouchers," Gonzalez says. "Hispanics figure the new leadership hates us," meaning the school board, which now has only one Latino member, "so the thinking might be, ' . . . Let's take the $4,000 and go to Catholic school.' "

The most recent surveys by the Field Poll revealed that most citizens were not aware of the coming storm. But when a statewide representative sampling of voters was read a summary of the measure, support was evenly split, with 39 percent for and 39 percent against, and the rest undecided.

Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll said these numbers suggest that the voucher proposal faces an uphill struggle. In the California initiative process, measures that require a "yes" vote usually must start out with a comfortable lead, and then hold on to support as opponents attack the initiatives.

This is not the first time that vouchers have been on the ballot here. In 1993, a similar measure was crushed at the polls. But DiCamillo has seen support for vouchers increase over the last seven years, and the times have changed.

"The difference between now and 1993 is that back then education wasn't the issue. It was crime. It was the economy," says Gale Kaufman, the lead political consultant for the No on Vouchers campaign, which is getting a lot of its initial support from the powerful and well-funded California Teachers Association as well as California PTAs. "Now, you ask anybody, anywhere, anytime, what do they care most about, and it's education."

But Kaufman is convinced her side will persuade voters this voucher initiative is reckless and unnecessary, as education reforms are already improving public schools in California.

"The public has a somewhat schizophrenic view of education issues," pollster DiCamillo says. "They have a negative view of school performance, and it's been that way for 10 years, but the issue is now at the top of their stated concerns. But if you ask people how their local schools are doing, they have a more positive view. And so the question is: How is this going to be waged? That the system is broke and needs to be fixed? Or that this will hurt your local public schools?"

Political handicappers point out that seven of 10 California voters do not have children in school--and these folks might be most concerned about whether the voucher programs will cost or save them tax dollars.

But about one third of the voters do have kids in school, and that is a sizable bloc. For the voting parents of the 600,000 children in private schools, the voucher initiative is one of those rare events in life when it is possible to get some money back from the government.

Draper is scornful of all this chatter about the possible impact of his voucher initiative on the Bush and Gore race. "I'm not into the minutiae of the political system," he says. But the little details here may prove very important.