California voters have turned sharply and solidly against Proposition 174, the school voucher initiative, in the last month under the assault of a $6-million advertising campaign by opponents, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.
Two weeks before the Nov. 2 special statewide election, the voucher proposal trailed among registered voters by 59% to 26%. Those who said they were likely to vote opposed the measure by an even greater margin, 66% to 27%.
Patricia Bullock, 68, of San Clemente summed up the feelings of the majority.
"I do think we need to look at our educational system and crank it up, but . . . I believe (Proposition 174) would just destroy our public education system," said Bullock, who was among the 1,301 registered voters polled statewide Saturday through Tuesday.
"I think the ones that need it the most--the most underprivileged, the poorest--would be the ones that would be left with nothing . . . the ones that need our educational system the most will lose the most," said retiree Bullock, a product of the Santa Barbara public schools. "I think our school system has to serve everyone."
The poll also found that voters were inclined to support, by a narrow margin, Proposition 172, which would make permanent a temporary half-cent statewide sales tax to aid local government. Sentiment was running against another measure, Proposition 170, to make it easier to pass local school bond issues.
There has been a sharp increase in voter awareness of the voucher measure and a hardening of opinion on it since the last survey a month ago, Times Poll Director John Brennan said. In September, only 48% of the voters said they knew something about Proposition 174. That figure had soared to 79% among those polled this week.
Three-quarters of the registered voters say that they have made up their minds and that there is no chance they will change positions before the election. This reflects "a very high level of commitment for a ballot proposition," Brennan said.
There is no such solidification, however, on Proposition 172.
When half the registered voters were read the measure's title as it appears on the ballot--emphasizing the benefits to local police and fire departments without mentioning the sales tax--sentiment ran 47% in favor and 29% against.
But when the effect of the measure was explained to the other half of the sample--including mention of a sales tax--voters divided almost evenly, 42% for and 40% against.
However, among those most likely to vote, Proposition 172 was leading regardless of the manner in which the question was posed--by 49% to 34% when sales taxes were mentioned and by 44% to 34% when they were not.
Nearly half the potential voters said they could change their minds on the sales tax measure between now and Election Day.
Another local finance measure was trailing by 49% to 32%. Proposition 170 would allow school bond issues to be approved by a majority vote instead of the two-thirds margin that has been in the state Constitution for decades. The bonds would be financed by increases in local property taxes. Among likely voters, the margin was slightly wider: 53% against, 34% in favor and 13% undecided.
The overall poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 points among registered voters, and 5 points among likely voters.
Proposition 174, the school voucher plan, was trailing in every major demographic group, including those thought to be its natural constituency--registered Republicans and conservatives. The only group that favored Proposition 174 was parents of children who are already in private schools--about 5% of the total sample.
"I think it's going to improve the education in general," said Michael Millikan, 60, of Newport Beach, a poll respondent who describes himself as a conservative. Millikan, a doctor whose four grown children attended both private and public schools, said poor teaching was "almost disastrous" for his children, but added that the public-school system is not "beyond salvation."
The initiative would amend the state Constitution to allow parents who want to send their children to private school to receive a $2,600 annual voucher from the state--about half the amount spent for each public school pupil in a year--for each child's tuition and other costs. The measure also provides a manner in which public schools can become voucher schools and for the Legislature to regulate voucher schools, but only by a three-fourths vote in each house.
The initiative originally was qualified by petition gatherers for the June, 1994, primary election, but was rescheduled when Gov. Pete Wilson called the special election for Nov. 2.
Supporters include former Reagan-Bush Cabinet secretaries William Bennett and Jack Kemp. The opposition includes most of the education establishment in California, including teacher unions that have mounted an extensive campaign. Opponents have outspent supporters by about 6 to 1.