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CAMPUS & CAREER GUIDE : Record $3-Billion Bond Measure Reflects Educators' New Alliance


After losing two of their last three bids to win more money for state colleges and universities, California's higher education leaders have finally learned a lesson long taught by former U.S. House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, who made famous the phrase: "All politics is local."

So when California voters go to the polls next month, they'll not only find a record $3-billion bond measure for education facilities--the largest in state history--but also one that for the first time combines public school and higher education projects in one package.

In a tight money era when bond measures are facing increasing resistance, analysts say the new alliance reflects a simple reality: Voters are more willing to spend money on the grade school in their neighborhood than the University of California campus across town.

"Voters always want the institution closest to their own homes to get more funding. But there's no UC campus other than UCLA right around here," said John Fairbank, a veteran Santa Monica-based pollster who has tracked Californians' views on spending for education.

By joining the two public education segments in one campaign, educators on both sides hope to capitalize on their relative strengths: the ability of higher education to raise campaign funds, and the public schools' greater appeal among voters.

When Fairbank's firm recently asked Los Angeles voters which segments of California public education are receiving too little funding, 62% chose public schools and 47% picked local community colleges. The California State University and University of California systems were chosen by only 38% and 31%, respectively.

And when the same 1,000 voters were asked how they thought the quality of California's public higher education systems had changed over the last five years, the largest share, 39%, said it had declined. Only 15% said quality had improved, and 27% said it had stayed the same.

The appeal of California's new education alliance will be tested in the March 26 state primary when voters consider Proposition 203, which would allocate more than $2 billion for public school facilities and $975 million for university and community college projects.

"It's a joint effort. It's the first time we've ever done it," said Stephen MacCarthy, a spokesman for the 22-campus Cal State system. MacCarthy said polling data suggests a combined campaign might fare better among voters.

Historically, state voters have given slightly larger approval margins to public school bond measures compared with those for higher education. But the favorable margins for both have slipped steadily in the last decade and hit bare majority levels or below in recent elections.

For years, bond measures--the chief means for building and expanding school facilities in California--won routine approval. Then, in a sign of changing times, voters in November 1990 narrowly rejected a $450-million higher education bond, the first defeat of a state bond since the 1960s.

Three education bond measures were approved in 1992, but voters in June 1994 rejected both a $900-million higher education bond and a $1-billion measure for public schools--the first defeat of a bond for primary and secondary schools in state history.

Analysts attribute the change in voter sentiment to a variety of factors: the continuing anti-tax sentiment fueled by the legacy of Proposition 13 in 1978, the recession of the early 1990s and accompanying budget cuts that racked public education, and increasing doubts about its quality.

Part of the reason public schools tend to fare better among voters than higher education is simple demographics: Although about three-quarters of California adults have earned high school degrees, less than one-quarter have attended college long enough to earn a bachelor's degree.

In the Los Angeles area, Fairbank also said the Los Angeles Unified School District "dominates everything" in education news. MacCarthy said the public image of Cal State campuses may still be suffering from publicity about budget cuts several years ago.

As for the nine-campus UC system, Fairbank said it suffers from the accurate public perception that it gets more of its money from sources other than taxpayers, and thus presumably has less need. Voters may also remember media reports of high salaries for college administrators in recent years.

Officials warn that if the latest bond measure fails, they won't have enough classrooms and other facilities to accommodate a "Tidal Wave II" of new students--the grandchildren of the World War II generation--expected to swell enrollments by 24% in the coming decade.

But the bond measure alone won't solve the projected problem. The California Postsecondary Education Commission estimated last year that the state's public colleges and universities will need $2 billion every two years to keep up with facility needs--twice what the bond measure will provide.

The panel said there is little likelihood that fiscal crisis will be solved. And without enough funds, student access to public higher education, the quality of instruction and college affordability all could suffer.

"There should be little doubt," the commission found, "that all three are threatened."

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