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1879 Law Doesn't Fit Needs in 2000

Prop. 26: Aging schools and a growing population dictate a change from two-thirds to a majority vote on bonds.

March 02, 2000|KELLY CANDAELE | Kelly Candaele is president of the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees

In 1879, a special convention gathered in Sacramento to reform California's Constitution. The convention delegates believed that California's governing statutes were outdated and did not reflect the economic and social problems of the day. The new constitution was ratified, including a clause denying voting rights to any native of China. It was clearly not a high point in the evolution of political and social democracy in California.

The Constitution of 1879 has been dramatically altered since then, but one vestige of that 19th century document remains intact. A two-thirds vote is still required to pass local construction bonds, making it extremely difficult to obtain support for the critical investments in infrastructure that we need. Passage of Proposition 26 on Tuesday will reduce the requirement for school construction bonds, including community colleges, from two-thirds to a simple majority vote.

The logic and the need are clear. More than 50% of California's public schools are more than 30 years old, and one-third of the K-12 classrooms in the state are portable ones. More than 2 million public school students spend part of their day in trailers, and more than half of California schools lack adequate electrical power for computer hookups. At a time when we need to build more than 500 schools to keep pace with population growth, an antiquated political process assures that we will fall further behind.

In the Los Angeles Community College District, many of our buildings were built during the 1930s, a New Deal infrastructure that needs upgrading for a new technology economy. According to the community college chancellor's office, an additional 400,000 students will be entering the statewide community college system by 2005. These students, mainly from poor and working-class backgrounds, deserve first-rate facilities and cutting-edge technology--the kind of infrastructure that our university students take for granted.

There are accountability measures built into the proposition that will ensure that school construction projects are done on time and on budget. A list of projects to be funded by the bonds will be provided to voters, and independent annual audits will be required on all projects. Additionally, charter schools are included under the provisions of Proposition 26.

The opponents of Proposition 26 have issued a clarion call to property owners to man the barricades against the democratic rabble. In their ballot argument against the proposition, they warn that if the measure passes, renters will be able to "outvote property owners." It's the myopic vision of a group that has lost its commitment to a shared future where public investment creates the foundation for individual advancement.

Forward-thinking business leaders have made the connection between investing in our educational infrastructure and the future health of our economy. The California Chamber of Commerce, the California Manufacturers Assn. and the Business Roundtable are all supporting its passage. They know that a poorly educated and trained work force threatens the future of California's economy. Sam Bell, president of Los Angeles Business Advisors, a group of Los Angeles CEOs, has stated their thinking clearly: "The lack of adequate school facilities is a major barrier in reaching a level where our students are both productive citizens and employees who can compete in a global economy."

The 1879 Constitution was created when California, as historian Kevin Starr describes it, was "carved into a series of feudal domains." At the time, the railroads controlled 12 million acres of California land and, according to Starr, 500 Californians owned an area nearly twice the size of Massachusetts. The concerns of the "propertied class" were firmly etched into California's highest law and reflected in the two-thirds requirement. Today, there are only four states in the country that operate under the same debilitating restrictions.

In 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote a now-famous letter to James Madison where he expressed his belief that "no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The Earth belongs always to the living generation." It was Jefferson's view that each generation had the right and obligation to create its laws and political institutions anew, reshaping them to meet the circumstances of the time. The anti-democratic remnant of California's 1879 Constitution is, to paraphrase Jefferson, a saddle on our political backs.

California's future should belong to the living. Our will is expressed through our democratic institutions and processes. Proposition 26 would align our laws with our deepest values and help redeem a commitment to public education that has been honored more often in rhetoric rather than in deed.

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