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California and the West | THE TIMES POLL

Voters Ready to Give Vouchers a Drubbing

Two-thirds of those likely to turn out oppose Proposition 38. Proposition 39, which would make it easier to pass school bond measures, is in a tighter race.


California's school voucher initiative is headed for a decisive defeat on Nov. 7, a new Los Angeles Times poll has found.

Two-thirds of likely voters who were polled said they plan to vote against Proposition 38, a hotly contested measure that would provide a $4,000 voucher for every California schoolchild to attend a private or a religious school. Twenty-seven percent said they supported it and 7% were undecided.

With less than two weeks until election day, the race is closer for Proposition 39, an initiative intended to make it easier for school districts to pass bond measures. Fifty-five percent of likely voters said they favor the measure, with 32% planning to vote no and 13% still undecided.

The voucher initiative is being promoted as a way to help children escape failing schools and to use competition to force improvement in public schools. But it has been criticized by even some voucher proponents because it does not discriminate on the basis of need or school quality. Even students from well-to-do homes who already attend private school would qualify.

Certainly, voters hold a low opinion of their public schools, with nearly three-fourths rating them fair to poor. Nonetheless, they so far do not seem ready to embrace vouchers as the answer.

Self-described liberal Democrats were most opposed to the measure, the poll indicated, with conservative Republicans the only political slice showing a majority in favor of the initiative--and a bare 51%, even in that group.

In Los Angeles, nearly eight of 10 voters said they plan to vote the measure down; six in 10 voters in the Bay Area said they oppose it.

The Times Poll, under the supervision of Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,304 registered voters from Oct. 19 to 23, with 852 designated as likely voters. The margin of sampling error is four percentage points for likely voters.

Joe Williams, a Central Valley executive with a granddaughter in a Fresno public school, echoed the concerns of many voters. He said in a follow-up interview that he plans to vote no because he sees the voucher initiative "as an effort to cream the best students out of the public schools" and "to take funds from public schools and put them in private schools."

But Michelle Monzingo, 27, a La Mirada mother of two, said she favors the measure as a way to give working-class parents a choice in how to educate their children. Her older daughter's experience in a public school kindergarten this year has persuaded Monzingo and her husband to enroll her in a parochial school next year. But the $2,000-plus tuition will be a burden, Monzingo said.

Although she considers herself to be strongly pro-union, Monzingo said she is dismayed by the quality of teaching in her local school. She blamed educational bureaucracy for demoralizing many teachers and pushing the system into mediocrity.

Hedda Hedge, a retiree in East El Cajon who also plans to vote for Proposition 38, said private school families "have had a double burden by contributing to public school upkeep and sending their children to private schools."

Proposition 38 is the brainchild of Timothy C. Draper, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who has bankrolled the measure with millions of dollars from his personal fortune. Gov. Gray Davis, teachers unions and many religious leaders have fought it.

A drubbing of Proposition 38 would indicate that voters have not warmed to the idea since 1993, when a whopping 70% of voters rejected a similar measure. Several prominent voucher supporters, including the California Catholic Conference, the state's largest provider of private school education, have criticized the measure for failing to target disadvantaged youngsters or those in failing schools.

Such targeted programs exist in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida, where a total of about 14,000 students participate.

As in California, a Michigan voucher initiative is behind in many polls, with heavy opposition and many undecided voters.

Among likely voters, 67% of whites said they would vote no on Proposition 38, while 54% of Latinos fell into that category. The sample was not large enough to break out likely voters among blacks and Asians.

The fact that Latinos were more likely than whites to favor vouchers--40% versus 26%--could reflect their greater dissatisfaction with local schools. Seventy-two percent of Latinos rated local schools as fair to poor, compared with 49% of whites. The two groups held similar views about California schools overall, with about three-quarters of likely voters deeming them fair to poor.

Awareness of the California voucher initiative is high, said Jill Darling Richardson, assistant director of the Times poll. Voters apparently have keyed in to the issue because of the vigorous ad campaigns being waged by both sides and the presidential campaign.

The same cannot be said for Proposition 39, which would lower the vote required to approve a local school construction bond issue to 55% from two-thirds. Bonds would be repaid through property taxes.

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