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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Smaller Classes Would Equal Higher Taxes

February 13, 1997|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Californians apparently think that reducing class sizes in the lower elementary grades is the greatest thing since free textbooks. Now, the teachers union wants to know whether voters think it's so great they'd be willing to pay higher taxes to cut all class sizes.

The California Teachers Assn. (CTA) on Monday began a $2-million, three-week statewide advertising campaign--TV, radio, newspapers--to praise the new 20-student class sizes in grades K-3. "But kids in the other grades need attention, too," the ads say. "Their classes are still the most crowded in America. . . . We need smaller classes for all our kids."

The 30-second TV spots portray cute kids and caring teachers--tiny tykes who are happy and alert in uncrowded classrooms, but older youngsters jammed elbow-to-elbow with facial expressions like they'd just been grounded for the weekend. In one ad, a folksy narrative is sung by country and western bard Hoyt Axton: ". . . We can only harvest what we've sown."

What you're really hearing and seeing is the roll-out of an exploratory campaign for a possible tax hike initiative on the November 1998 ballot. The CTA will poll voters after the ads soften them up and, based on their attitudes, decide whether to seek a tax increase. The decision probably will be made in May at a Los Angeles convention.

Union leaders have been considering a wide range of taxes, from sin (liquor-tobacco) to service (haircuts, etc.). But the old standby sales tax seems to be the favorite. That's because the sales tax--unlike, say, a beer levy--can raise big money: $3.5 billion annually per each cent.

Most Democratic politicians wince when an ally, such as the CTA, suggests raising taxes. Republicans simply laugh, not believing their good fortune.

When a reporter asked Gov. Pete Wilson what he thought of the CTA's move toward "some kind of tax increase," the governor quickly replied: "Wash your mouth out with soap."

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For both chutzpah and clout, this teachers union is in its own class.

It's headed toward pushing a politically chancy tax hike exactly 10 years after it risked millions and prestige in winning narrow passage of Proposition 98. That landmark measure guarantees elementary and high schools, plus community colleges, at least 40% of the state's general fund.

It was the CTA that bankrolled the successful fight against the private school vouchers initiative in 1993.

A year ago, its TV ad campaign bemoaning the fact that California ranked "dead last" nationally in class size inspired Wilson to champion the cause. He and the Legislature kicked in $1 billion. The governor's private take on this is that he called the CTA's bluff, went further even than the teachers union wanted and also buried a Democratic campaign issue. Whatever, many people benefited, including Wilson politically.

In recent elections, the CTA has been the biggest campaign contributor to state politicians, usually Democrats, but not always. It gives based on need and potential investment return, not on sentiment. In fact, it endorsed and gave $30,031 last year to Republican Assemblyman Jim Cunneen of San Jose, even though his Democratic opponent was a popular former CTA president. Cunneen always had voted CTA's way.

The union contributed a ton to Democrats in competitive races, assuring the party's control of both legislative houses. In all, the CTA donated $2.7 million to candidates and poured in another $4.5 million for ballot measure fights.

Its Capitol clout is undeniable. But not even the powerful CTA can generate the two-thirds majority vote needed to ramrod a sales tax increase through the Legislature--let alone get it signed by the governor.

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Indeed, there's no Capitol consensus about how fast or where to move on class size reduction.

Wilson has proposed adding a fourth grade so that all K-3 classes are included. Now, just three grades are eligible; each school chooses. But Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill recommended Wednesday that any expansion of the program be delayed. She said there aren't enough qualified teachers or classrooms. Many Democrats, including state schools chief Delaine Eastin, contend the present K-3 program needs more money.

Meanwhile, the CTA's position is simply: "The state must fully fund class size reduction in all grades, K-12, to no more than 20 students."

Eastin says that would require $10 billion for start-up, followed by $5 billion each year.

That's why the CTA is thinking tax increase. Clearly, it's also thinking that the popular class size program may be a good hook to bring in more tax dollars for schools.

Like a new subscription, you get the first three grades free. You want more, it costs.

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