CONCORD, Calif. -- Debbie Babcock held up a small iron caldron. "We don't cackle around it," she said, which was enough of an invitation to Angelique Heddings to let out an elaborate cackle just to prove she could,
"We don't put babies in it, either," Ms. Heddings said when she was through with her laugh.
When two black cats, Morgana and Pandora, padded through the living room, they presented just another image problem for the witches to bat away.
These are serious witches and witches who would like to be taken seriously. Until a few weeks ago, they were living quiet New Age-type lives, raising kids, working in offices, practicing a little spell-casting and sticking dull-edged swords into the ground to rid themselves of bad energy.
All of that changed when they announced they would like to form a pagan school in response to a California ballot initiative that would allow parents to use state money to pay for tuition at private schools.
Now the witches have made appearances on television and radio talk shows (the callers have been supportive, they say) and have emerged as an emotional target in the debate about what is right and wrong about the school voucher initiative.
Opponents of the ballot initiative, which would give parents $2,600 per pupil a year in state money toward private school tuition, have pounced on the witches as an example of how loose the private school regulations are.
"We're not for or against witches," said Tommye Hutto, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. "What we have a concern about is that anybody who can get 25 students together can form a school with no regulations."
The teachers association's literature puts the concern more strongly. If David Koresh had operated his Branch Davidian compound in California, it says, he would have been entitled to $100,000 in state money for his 40-plus students.
Proponents of the initiative, a consortium of business leaders joined by Roman Catholic and other Christian school administrators, don't have anything good to say about the witches, either.
Sean Walsh, spokesman for Yes on 174, A Better Choice, the group backing the initiative, called the witches "ridiculous."
He said the witches wouldn't be allowed to have a school, though he couldn't say why not.
"This is a fringe distraction from the real issue, that millions of students in California are not being adequately educated," he said.
The initiative, which seeks to inject free-market economics into the public school system, will go before voters in November.
The plan's proponents say the $2,600 vouchers would save the state money, since the state now spends $5,200 per pupil a year in the public schools.
If the plan passed, California would be the scene of the largest experiment in the nation in "parental choice" in deciding where children go to school, although schools that teach witchcraft are not at all what the A Better Choice group had in mind.
Through it all, the witches, who say their beliefs are a pre-Christian female religion based on healing and the Earth, say they're just parents who are fed up with public schools, the very people the initiative sought to help.
"I'm what you'd call the working poor," said Karlyn Streganona, a witch who works as a secretary and is the sole provider for her two children. "I'm the sort of person they're talking about. I just don't have the right God."
Like many parents living in school districts that aren't what they once were, Ms. Streganona worries about whether her children will physically survive public school, let alone receive an education.
"On the campus, there have been shootings, and this is junior high," she said, referring to her son Mike's school in Antioch, Calif. "At the high school, a guy set a girl on fire. He felt she and her friends had insulted him by saying that chocolate causes pimples."
Compared with that scenario, she said, a pagan school would be a safe haven where traditional reading, writing and arithmetic would be taught.
Where Christian schools have one period a day of religion, so the pagan school would have one period a day of wicca, the ancient name for witchcraft, she said. Teachings would include how Christianity appropriated many wiccan practices and how to burn sage to "cleanse energy," for instance.
The coven, known as the Contra Costa Pagan Association, with its headquarters in Concord, a city of 98,000 about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco, already has received calls from public school teachers who would like to teach at the pagan school.
"We've been pointed out as a worst-case scenario," said Ms. Streganona. "They say we're a fringe group and we have illegal practices, which is not true. We'll be one small school. It's not like their children have to go to it."