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Vouchers Lose; School Bond Vote Leading

Bid to provide tax money to attend private institutions is soundly defeated. Plan to cut percentage needed to pass bond measures slightly ahead.


California's universal voucher initiative suffered a decisive defeat late Tuesday, while an effort to make it easier to pass local school construction bond measures clung to a narrow lead.

Proposition 38 sought to provide a $4,000 voucher to any student in kindergarten through 12th grade wishing to attend a private school. The hotly debated measure would have created the most sweeping voucher program in the nation.

The defeat marks the second time in seven years that Californians have rejected the notion of using public funds to send children to private schools, including religious ones.

Vouchers suffered another setback in Michigan, where voters clobbered a narrower statewide program that would have provided taxpayer-funded payments for students in troubled schools.

"The only way to read it is that voters care deeply about public schools and believe vouchers are fundamentally flawed," said Gale Kaufman, a spokeswoman for the No on Vouchers 2000 Committee, a California group. "They are prepared to spend money to help public schools."

With three-quarters of the precincts counted, a slight majority of voters favored Proposition 39. The measure sought to lower the threshold for approving local school bond measures to 55% of the vote rather than two-thirds.

Exit polls indicated that older voters opposed the measure, as they had a similar initiative on the ballot in March that would have reduced the needed approval to a simple majority.

The California voucher battle dearly cost supporters and opponents. As of Oct. 26, the Yes on 38 campaign had spent $26 million, $23 million of which had come from the measure's sponsor, Timothy C. Draper, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. The No on 38 campaign, funded primarily by the California Teachers Assn., had spent $28 million by that time.

Draper, a registered Republican with Libertarian leanings, said he was undaunted by the results.

"This is the beginning of a movement that is going to change the way people are educated," he said at a Republican Party celebration at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott. "Kids have been trapped in failed schools for too long. We're just going to keep coming back."

Despite widespread disenchantment with public schooling across the nation, a national exit poll conducted for Voter News Service indicated that voters would rather try to fix the schools than embrace drastic overhauls. Voucher supporters have vowed to keep the movement alive, but the clear message from voters in California and Michigan was that they do not favor broad, statewide measures.

"I would hope that a big-time defeat would send a powerful message to the voucher forces that this is not the way to go," said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. "Proposition 38 is a sham that won't help the vast majority of poor children."

The measure would have applied to all of California's 6.6 million schoolchildren, including the 650,000 already in parochial or other private schools.

Results have been uneven from small voucher experiments in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Florida, where a combined total of about 14,000 students participate in taxpayer-supported voucher programs.

Supporters argued that Proposition 38 would have forced public schools to improve and given parents a much needed choice in how to educate their children.

The measure was pilloried by teachers, Gov. Gray Davis and many African American preachers, who said they feared that it would hasten the decline of urban public schools and put minority students at an even greater disadvantage.

Critics of Proposition 38 also complained that the measure would have required taxpayers to pay $4,000 for each of the students, many of them from affluent families, who already attend private schools.

Proposition 39 posed a much simpler question to voters. The initiative would affect kindergarten-through-12th-grade public schools as well as community colleges.

The measure enjoyed the support of Davis and Pete Wilson, and had a lopsided advantage in campaign funds. The most prominent opponent was the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., which viewed it as an unfair burden on property owners.

A unified school district bond measure could cost a property owner as much as $60 annually per $100,000 of assessed property value over the life of a bond, which is typically 20 to 30 years.

In March, a similar initiative, Proposition 26, that would have reduced the requirement to a simple majority vote failed, 51% to 49%.

School districts have complained for years that the super-majority requirement has kept bond funds for school projects out of reach, especially in lower-income communities. Since 1986, 282 bond measures have fallen short of the 66.7% requirement but would have made the 55% cut, according to EdSource, a nonprofit education research group in Palo Alto. During that period, 452 local bond measures passed with at least a two-thirds vote.

In dollar terms, measures totaling more than $18 billion got the necessary two-thirds approval, according to the state analyst's office. But more than $13 billion of bonds were defeated despite having received at least 55% of the vote.

School choice proponents were pleased with one provision of the measure. It would require that K-12 districts use some of the bond money to provide charter schools with adequate facilities.

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