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California and the West

Bond Backers Weigh Second Try

Education: Bid to cut margin needed to pass school measures failed by so little that supporters consider a rush job to put initiative on fall ballot.

March 24, 2000|AMY PYLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Just weeks after the failure of an initiative to ease local school bond passage, backers are seriously considering another try in November.

What's their hurry? They fear the window of benevolence toward public schools may be slowly shutting.

California is near a tipping point. Alongside the uncertainty over the economy's fortitude lies this virtual certainty: As 9.6 million baby boomers in the state age and watch their kids leave home, their support for public education will wane.

"It's an issue now, and it's going to be more of an issue in the future," said pollster Mark Baldassare, whose book, "California in the New Millennium," suggests that the oft-overlooked aging of the electorate will become one of the most important political factors in the next two decades.

The proportion of California households with children under 18 has steadily dropped, to about a third this year, according to state and federal government tallies. Among likely voters, who are older and whiter than the state's population at large, only about one in four households has a human investment--a child--in schools.

Never has the potential impact of that shift been clearer than in the defeat earlier this month of Proposition 26. The initiative, backed by educators and business leaders, sought to lower the vote needed to pass local school bond measures from two-thirds to 50%.

Voters over 45--who made up a third of the primary electorate--were the engine behind the measure's failure, according to The Times' exit poll. The rejection of the initiative by 54% of that group dashed its slight advantage among younger voters.

The measure lost by 164,766 votes, 49% to 51%.

There were, of course, other factors in the loss. Turnout was unusually white, male and conservative, energized by the John McCain/George W. Bush face-off and Proposition 22, which effectively bans recognition of gay marriage in California.

A new election analysis by the Assembly Republican Caucus indicates that Proposition 26 would have passed, had the ethnic mix mirrored that of voters in the 1998 primary.

That alone could encourage another run at the proposition in November.

But other factors--both positive and negative--under consideration in the ongoing debate, expected to conclude early next week, include the following:

* Gov. Gray Davis, criticized for doing too little to push Proposition 26, has vowed to fight for a similar initiative in November. But this week he said he would participate only if the vote threshold required for passing bonds is increased from 50% to 60%.

* Nearly 700,000 valid signatures would have to be gathered by mid-May. That would cost at least $5 million, because of the short time span and competition from dozens of other proposed initiatives.

* Los Angeles County, usually a dependable aye vote for public school measures, turned Proposition 26 down in the March primary. Pundits believe that voters there were turned off by downtown's doomed Belmont Learning Complex project--the nation's most expensive high school, which appears unlikely to ever open because it was built on an oil field.

* Voters in a general election tend to be more liberal. But a close contest between Vice President Al Gore and Bush--along with conservative initiatives such as the quest to allow public funds to pay for private schools--could reinvigorate the conservative base that dominated the primary.

Even if it doesn't, voters presented with an initiative retread may say, "What don't you understand about no?" said Burt McChesney, executive director of California Business for Education Excellence, one of the partners behind Proposition 26.

So far, McChesney said, supporters are leaning toward trying again in November, but they have to determine whether that desire is "our hearts over our heads." If they don't do it this year, the next opportunity would not arise until the next major statewide election, in 2002.

Regardless of the immediate decision, McChesney and other supporters acknowledge that the primary results represent a possible harbinger of a troubling future in which fewer and fewer voters feel a connection to public schools.

The aging-voter phenomenon is not unique to California. Since 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau reports, three-quarters of the growth in the nation's voting-age population has occurred in the 45- to 60-year-old group. The boomers--those 4 million babies born annually from 1946 to 1964--represented the bulk of that expansion.

"Our only hope is that [older voters] would have some sort of a social conscience, would want to provide a decent education for the children of California," said California Teachers Assn. President Wayne Johnson. "It's an investment, though, and people vote their pocketbook, without envisioning the consequences."

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