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School Voucher Campaign Zeros In on Swing Voters : Election: Battle will likely be costly and bitter. An expected low turnout means sharpening the messages.


SACRAMENTO — The supporters are an improbable but moneyed coalition of free-market conservatives, libertarians and Christian fundamentalists, spiced with a big name or two from the Ronald Reagan Administration.

Their pitch is simple: The school system is failing, test scores are abysmal, discipline is a thing of the past, and entrenched teachers unions resist change. The solution is competition: If forced to compete with private schools, they argue, public schools will have to improve.

The opponents--the unions representing teachers and other school employees at the core of the state education Establishment--say this "solution" is nothing short of evil. It would, they contend, undermine the very foundation of democracy, while helping the wealthy send their children to elite private academies.

The object of their battle: Proposition 174, the Education Vouchers Initiative on the Nov. 2 statewide ballot. The measure would for the first time offer parents tax-supported vouchers to help send their children to any school that accepts them, including private and parochial schools. Neither side doubts that the initiative would radically alter education in California.

With less than seven weeks to go until the election, each side is carefully devising quite different plans for driving home its arguments. Capturing a critical mass of voters in what is widely expected to be a low turnout election means sharpening and keenly targeting their campaign messages--and raising enough money to ensure that their side's arguments prevail.

Pro-voucher forces say their main effort will be to consolidate their conservative base, draw in dissatisfied public school parents and get out the vote among private and parochial school parents, who polls show are among the measure's strongest supporters.

The organized opposition says it will try to expand its base of public schoolteachers and employees to include suburban Republicans, and to persuade parents happy with their public schools that the initiative will wreck the system.

If money moves the message, the voucher opponents are ahead. The No on 174 effort raised $1.23 million in the first half of the year, and has mapped out a $10-million campaign--twice as much as the pro-Proposition 174 campaign plans to spend.

The Yes on 174 forces, operating from three separate committees, got off to a slow start, raising only $555,000 in the first half of this year. Their budget for the campaign is $5 million.

Given the money being discussed--and both sides' belief that they are engaged in a war for the future of California--the campaign is certain to turn nasty.

"It's not going to be a pretty campaign," said Ken Khachigian, campaign manager for the Yes on 174 effort. A veteran of conservative Republican fights, Khachigian has a reputation for running aggressive, often successful campaigns.

With the measure trailing in opinion polls and the money race, and believing that only 5 million voters will turn out Nov. 2, Khachigian said he will not overlook any potential source of votes, no matter how small. He has assigned Stephen Guffanti, a former Vista school board member and one of the earliest backers of the initiative, to find volunteers and get out the vote. Guffanti has been prospecting for supporters by holding meetings at churches.

"We're fighting an uphill battle," said state Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove), a conservative businessman who donated $10,000 and is raising money for the voucher campaign. "What we're saying is, let's throw the whole thing (public schools) up in the air and see how we can make it come down and make it better."

Hurtt is a political ally of Howard Ahmanson, a Christian fundamentalist and scion of the family that founded Home Savings of America. Ahmanson and his company, Fieldstead, have given $210,000 to the voucher campaign.

Hurtt and Ahmanson have the potential to raise far more. Their Allied Business Political Action Committee gave $915,000 to anti-abortion Republicans in the 1991-92 election cycle, making it the fourth-largest donor to state campaigns. The third-largest donor was the California Teachers Assn., the initiative's main opponent, which spent $992,000 on legislative races.

So far, entrepreneurs motivated by their belief in the virtues of a free market have been the major source of big donations to the voucher measure. In years past, some were involved in Libertarian Party politics. The Libertarian Party, among the supporters of Proposition 174, opposes government involvement in most areas, including tax-supported schools.

A main intellectual force behind school vouchers is the Reason Foundation, a libertarian-oriented nonprofit institute in Los Angeles that advocates privatization of many government functions. Since the campaign began in late 1991, benefactors and trustees of Reason have donated more than $400,000 to the pro-voucher campaign.

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