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Misleading Ads Anger Both Sides in School Voucher Fight

Commercials make increasingly strident claims about crime, bias and teachers. Each camp has asked for retractions, but no spots have been withdrawn.


Both sides in the hard-fought battle over school vouchers have launched increasingly strident and misleading advertisements as the vote on Proposition 38 draws closer.

The added exposure on the airwaves and in political mailers has done little to clarify the central question of the proposition--whether students should be eligible for $4,000 vouchers of public funds to help them attend private schools.

Instead, ads for and against the November ballot measure have made it seem more like a referendum on crime reduction, educational discrimination and the level of commitment by teachers to their public schools.

Voucher proponents have hit hard at public school teachers, saying they send their own children to private schools in large numbers but don't want to help others do the same. Those fighting the measure have tried to make it appear that vouchers would discriminate against the poor and "abandon" many children.

Both sides have demanded retractions from their opposition and appealed for television stations to drop the spots. None of the ads, however, have been withdrawn.

Polls have shown opposition to the measure increasing, while support has remained stagnant for several months at about 36%.

But with less than three weeks until the election, the Yes on 38 campaign seems to be intensifying its efforts. Funded largely by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Timothy Draper, the campaign has spent twice as much as the anti-voucher forces, which have drawn their financial support mostly from teachers unions.

The campaigns for and against Proposition 38 had spent $47 million by the end of September, far more than expenditures for any other office or measure on California's Nov. 7 ballot.

The Yes on 38 campaign has paid out $31.4 million, records show. Opponents, primarily the California Teachers Assn., have spent half that, $15.7 million, with about $6 million more in the bank.

Among the most provocative and controversial ads in favor of Proposition 38 are those suggesting that many Los Angeles public school teachers send their children to private schools but don't want to give others that opportunity.

Television ads and 60-second radio spots receiving wide airplay say that "40% of schoolteachers in Los Angeles send their children to private schools." On radio, the ad continues: "The public schools aren't good enough for their kids, but they're supposed to be good enough for yours."

In justifying that statement, the Yes on 38 forces cite an analysis of 1990 census data by voucher advocate Denis P. Doyle.

Doyle's 5-year-old study attempted, in several American cities, to measure the number of public and private school teachers who had children in private schools.

When private school teachers were removed from the equation, Doyle actually found that 30% of public school teachers living in Los Angeles sent their children to private schools. That is short of the 40% claimed in the ad, but more than the 19.5% of all city parents with children in private schools.

Teachers complained that the ads make it appear that the figures are for the Los Angeles Unified School District when, in fact, Doyle did not compile the information by school district.

Los Angeles educators objected that even Doyle's 30% figure exaggerates their use of private schools because it doesn't account for teachers who live in Los Angeles but work elsewhere.

United Teachers-Los Angeles officials said this week that a phone survey of 128 teachers with school-age children found 17% had them in private schools. More than half of those were in parochial schools--suggesting that religion might have been the prime reason for some teachers' decisions.

"This really bothers teachers, because they are being lied about," said Day Higuchi, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles. "They support, believe in and honor the public schools--the institution they have devoted their lives to."

The Yes on 38 campaign provoked another angry response this week with a mailer it sent to thousands of households statewide. "Prop. 38 Yes . . . because saving public education also means saving lives," headlined the mailer.

A photo of a menacing young man with an eyebrow ring is next to the words: "Lock your doors." The pamphlet says the voucher measure will "put an end to the rising population of dropouts who commit thousands of violent crimes each year, including 82,213 violent crimes against senior citizens."

In fact, campaign officials concede that the state does not track the educational status of those committing violent crimes. They also acknowledge that the 82,213 figure for attacks on senior citizens is an eight-year total, not a single-year number, as the ad implies.

Infuriated by the mailer, four senior citizens organizations held a joint news conference in Sacramento earlier this week. They said the mailer needlessly scares older people and makes a false connection between vouchers and preventing violent crime.

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