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Clinton Urges 'No' Vote on School Voucher Initiative : Election: He says the plan would seriously hurt public education. Backers of Prop. 174 note that the President's daughter attends a private school.


SAN FRANCISCO — President Clinton waded into the midst of one of the state's most controversial political issues Monday, urging Californians to defeat Proposition 174--the school voucher initiative on the November ballot.

"American schools ought to have competition," Clinton said, but the ballot initiative would "throw out the baby with the bathwater"--taking $1.3 billion away from public schools that are short of funds and providing the money to private schools without imposing educational standards or requirements.

"Wouldn't it be ironic if, at the very moment we're finally trying to raise standards" for public schools, the government would "turn around and start sending tax money to private schools that didn't have to meet any standards at all?" Clinton said in a speech to the AFL-CIO convention here.

"The people will regret this if they pass it," Clinton said. "If I were a citizen of the state of California, I would not vote for Proposition 174."

White House officials had billed the AFL-CIO speech as primarily an address on Clinton's health care proposals. But so many other issues crowded into his talk that he did not reach health care until about 45 minutes into a nearly hourlong oration.

In addition to his remarks on school vouchers, Clinton delivered a lengthy argument in favor of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, which the AFL-CIO strongly opposes, and described an exhaustive list of Administration programs that fall under his general rubric of increasing Americans' sense of personal and economic security.

Clinton's involvement in the school voucher issue is unusual, given that Presidents generally stay out of such state matters and that many statewide officials--most notably Gov. Pete Wilson--have not taken a stand on the question. A recent Times poll found voters closely divided on the issue, with 39% in favor and 45% opposed. Democrats were slightly more opposed than voters at large.

But public education has long been a major issue for Clinton, who built much of his gubernatorial career around a campaign to improve Arkansas' schools. In addition, several members of Clinton's Cabinet--including Californians Leon A. Panetta, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Mickey Kantor, the trade representative--urged him to oppose the ballot initiative, White House officials said. The subject was a topic of discussion at last week's Cabinet meeting, they said.

In Los Angeles, Yes on 174 spokesman Sean Walsh accused Clinton of "the worst sort of hypocrisy," citing the fact that Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, attends an exclusive private school.

"It's hypocrisy that he lives in an area with bad schools, paid for by tax dollars, and he sends his daughter to a private school," Walsh said. "Mr. and Mrs. Clinton enjoy the benefits and privileges of a private education for their daughter; why shouldn't the parents of California enjoy the same privilege?"

Later Monday, Clinton announced a package of medium-sized economic programs aimed at bolstering California's flagging economy. "The economy of this nation cannot recover unless the economy of this state recovers," Clinton said, noting that while California has 12% of the nation's population, it has roughly 25% of the nation's unemployed.

The announcement ceremony marked a new effort by the Administration to try to highlight federal programs that send money to the state--an effort to reverse what White House officials insist is an incorrect perception that Clinton has not been making an effort to improve the California economy.

The highlight of the package is a new high-energy physics program based at Stanford University. The "B-factory," designed to investigate one of the basic mysteries of physics--why the universe contains much matter and very little antimatter--would cost $237 million to build and protect employment at Stanford's Linear Accelerator Center. The Department of Energy chose the Stanford site over a competing one at Cornell University in Upstate New York.

Clinton also announced new funds to help rebuild parts of the Bay Area's Cypress Freeway destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and $110 million in low-income housing grants to the state. Roughly $20 million of those funds would go to Los Angeles County, White House officials said.

Clinton also insisted, as he has before, that the proposed free trade agreement would be of particular benefit to California, in terms of increasing the state's exports and in reducing illegal immigration by increasing the number of jobs in Mexico.

Despite strong labor opposition to the agreement, White House aides decided weeks ago that Clinton would have to address the trade pact controversy here or be accused of political cowardice. And he did so directly, although conceding that he probably would change few minds.

During the 1980s, he told the labor leaders, American companies moved thousands of jobs to Mexico, "and you were right to be upset about what happened."

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