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DECISION '98

Mammoth Bond for School Construction Passes

Education: $9.2-billion measure will benefit full range of state's campuses. Wilson-backed Prop. 8 loses, while Eastin leads challenger in race for superintendent.

November 04, 1998|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a year of rising public interest in education, the largest school construction bond in state history triumphed at the polls Tuesday--a $9.2-billion measure to rebuild and expand a crowded, aging network of campuses from elementary schools to universities.

But Proposition 8, a measure pushed by departing Gov. Pete Wilson to shake up education management in local schools and the state government, was defeated.

Early returns also showed the incumbent state superintendent of public instruction, Delaine Eastin, holding a solid lead in her bid for a second four-year term.

Proposition 1A, the school bond measure, got off to a substantial lead in early returns. It needed a simple majority to win.

Proposition 8 lost by about a 3-2 margin. Eastin, a Democrat from Alameda County, was ahead of challenger Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Republican from Orange County.

Surge for Democrats

An Eastin victory, combined with the defeat of Proposition 8 and Gray Davis' victory in the governor's race, would enable Democrats to consolidate control over the nation's largest school system.

But Proposition 1A, which drew broad support from all parts of the political spectrum, may be the most significant legacy the 1998 electorate bequeathed to schools. Educators cheered passage of the bond measure as a sign that voters and politicians could work together to meet a crucial need.

"It will have major, major impact on the universities, the community colleges and the public schools," said Charles Reed, chancellor of the 23-campus Cal State University system. "But what [the vote] really says is that the people in California recognize they have to invest in the future."

Tuesday's elections capped a year in which education became a front-line issue as candidates across the state and the nation claimed to carry the banner for "real" school reform--while depicting their opponents as representatives of the failed "status quo."

Both preelection surveys and exit polls on election day consistently found that education outranked such perennial political concerns as crime, the economy, taxes and abortion.

"Certainly, voters have left no doubt about what they consider to be Issue No. 1: 'It's the schools, stupid!' " wrote Bob Chase, president of the 2.4-million-member National Education Assn., in a newspaper commentary. "And there is evidence that candidates are listening."

Yet while contenders for governor and U.S. senator at the top of the ticket spent much time visiting classrooms and talking up their commitment to children, the major statewide education contests were largely overshadowed.

Voters tuning to television or radio heard little, if anything, about the state superintendent's race, Proposition 8 or Proposition 1A until the last weeks of the campaign.

The first two of those contests were marked by intense partisan skirmishing and a late burst of fund-raising. Proposition 1A, by contrast, offered a bipartisan antidote to the rhetoric that otherwise split many would-be school reformers into ideological camps.

The $9.2-billion bond measure includes $6.7 billion for the K-12 school system and $2.5 billion for community colleges and the Cal State and UC systems. Advocates said the money was desperately needed in a state with fast-growing student enrollment and crumbling schools.

The measure, put on the ballot by the state Legislature, was a compromise that offered certain guarantees to housing developers to help limit their obligations to fund school construction.

Major backers of the initiative included the California Teachers Assn., the state's largest teacher union, along with several university foundations. Opponents, mainly anti-tax conservatives, ran a lightly funded campaign using little more than published arguments in the state ballot pamphlet.

The other two races were more heavily contested. Incumbent state Supt. Eastin and challenger Matta Tuchman staged a tense runoff after a five-way June election in which Eastin fell short of a majority. At stake in the nominally nonpartisan contest was a four-year position paying a salary of $111,384 and overseeing 1,200 employees in the state Department of Education.

The influence of the office has waxed and waned over the years depending on which party holds the governor's chair and which controls the Legislature.

Eastin, 51, a Democrat and former state assemblywoman from Fremont, was elected to the position in 1994.

During her tenure, Eastin has frequently been at odds with Wilson and his appointed state Board of Education. Eastin, for example, criticized Wilson's insistence on testing all students in English even though hundreds of thousands were not fluent in the language. She also contended that the state should spend more per pupil and that tax dollars should not be spent on vouchers to help parents send their children to private schools.

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