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California and the West

Unlikely Team Seeks School Bond Reform

Education: Charter campus advocate and teachers union want to ask voters to change approval for funding measures from two-thirds to a simple majority.

April 23, 1999|AMY PYLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — In an unexpected alliance, California's largest teachers union has joined forces with a top charter school advocate on an initiative to reduce the number of votes required for local school bond measures.

The measure, expected to be qualified for signature gathering next week, would lower the votes needed for school construction, repair and technology bonds from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority: 50% plus one vote.

It is backed by the California Teachers Assn. and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings, creating a powerful mixture of political acumen, eager foot soldiers and deep pockets.

Insiders say that Hastings has pledged to spend up to $5 million of his own money on the $10-million campaign, though he says that he intends to raise much of it from business leaders--and perhaps far more. Many suggest that it was not Hastings' monetary prowess but his campaign value as a bona fide education reformer that persuaded the union to make the deal.

Though the union rejects the public perception of teachers as reform obstacles, the organization knows "that's just part of our reality," said John Hein, the union's director of governmental relations.

In return for Hastings' support, the union agreed to amend the initiative by adding bond financing for independent charter schools, committing school districts to build and provide space free of charge to qualified charter schools.

"You don't look to do things on your own, you look to build allies," Hastings said of his decision to pair up with the union. "What I care about is there's enough schools so there's 20 kids in a classroom instead of 40."

Sponsors must return 670,000 signatures of registered voters by the end of September to qualify the measure for the March ballot, though they might hold off if a proposed private school voucher measure qualifies for that election.

The last initiative to lower the voter threshold on school bonds, Proposition 170, was rejected by nearly 60% of voters in 1993. Although the union and Hastings are banking on a more amenable economic climate to carry their proposal, foes predict another rejection.

"We don't believe the political dynamic of this state has changed that dramatically," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. "But if they want to run it up the flagpole again, we'll be happy to shoot it down again."

Though the two-thirds vote requirement is often associated with Jarvis' Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax cut, school bonds have had to meet that requirement for more than a century. At least 43 states require only a simple majority.

The urgency of passing local bonds increased in November with voter approval of a statewide school bond measure providing $9.2 billion to districts that chip in local matching funds.

Local school bonds only have about a 50-50 chance of passage in California, but in the last few years nearly all have received at least simple majority backing.

Opponents of a simple majority vote point out that three-quarters of the districts that try to pass a bond--sometimes several times--eventually succeed.

The five largest school districts in the state, including Los Angeles and Long Beach, recently have passed bonds. But initiative supporters point out that many smaller, poorer school districts haven't even tried.

A bill that would put a simple majority school bond measure on the March ballot is pending in the Legislature. Though considered a longshot, it would replace the teachers union effort if it passes.

The major difference between now and 1993, Hein said, is that Proposition 170 shared a special election ballot with a private school voucher initiative, sapping the strength of the school bond measure's natural backers. The California Teachers Assn. plowed more than $13 million into the anti-voucher campaign and less than $100,000 into Proposition 170.

Having Hastings on the marquee is another significant difference, Hein acknowledged.

Hastings, a Peace Corps math teacher who became wealthy developing engineering software, made his political force known last year. He qualified a charter school expansion initiative for the ballot, then used the initiative to leverage a similar plan that passed the Legislature in April.

It was during negotiations over the charter school legislation that Hastings and Hein first met.

"Through that process I got to know them, to realize how much common ground we had," Hastings said.

Hein said he made it clear to Hastings that the CTA does not oppose charters per se, but wants more protection for veteran teachers. However, a CTA-backed bill requiring charters to be unionized, now pending in the Legislature, has infuriated many charter enthusiasts.

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