SACRAMENTO — California voters have yet to strongly embrace Gov. Jerry Brown's controversial plan to shift money from rich schools to poor ones, an ominous sign as he works to win support for the idea from skeptical lawmakers and the state's powerful teachers unions.
A new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that 50% of respondents agreed with such a move, to help school districts that serve low-income children and English-language learners.
But a significant minority, 39%, opposed the plan, which is embedded in the governor's budget blueprint and is the centerpiece of his education agenda. Brown has described his bid as "a classic case of justice to unequals."
Support broke along ethnic and socioeconomic lines, with 67% of Latinos backing the proposal, compared with 42% of whites.
Voters solidly endorsed a separate Brown proposal to give school districts more control over the state funds they receive, with 59% in favor. Only 41% approved of a legislative effort to make it easier for local governments to raise more education money through parcel taxes — a priority for many Democratic lawmakers.
In the past, Democrats and their allies in teachers unions have resisted upending the way schools are funded. Brown's most contentious proposal this year would give all districts a base grant, with extra funding for each student who is low-income, struggling with English or in foster care.
"Our future depends not on across-the-board funding, but in disproportionately funding those schools that have disproportionate challenges," he said as he unveiled his plan in January.
With race and class at its core, the proposal could open a thorny debate.
"The challenge for the governor here is to make a case that this is not a divisive issue but a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats" proposal, said Drew Lieberman of the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which conducted the survey in conjunction with the Republican company American Viewpoint.
Lisa Andrews, a Latina from Fresno, approves of the plan. The 47-year-old Democrat grew up in a small Central Valley farming community where her elementary school classmates struggled with English skills.
"If you're going to set tax money aside, then give it to those who would benefit the most from it," she said. "You have to be able to speak English and learn your grammar first, because the other classes are useless if you're not on equal ground" with other students.
On the other side of the issue, Dave Kanevsky, a pollster for American Viewpoint, described the governor's plan as "class warfare applied to schools" because it is framed "in terms of taking from one and giving to another."
Respondent Debra Sexton, 57, a Democrat and retired photographer from Corona, expressed a similar view. She said the idea of giving more money to poor schools at the expense of wealthier ones was fundamentally unfair, particularly to high-performing campuses.
"I don't think those schools should be punished because a lesser school isn't making the grade," she said.
Brown's proposal to give districts more spending flexibility would eliminate dozens of state requirements for specific programs, such as vocational training and summer school, and instead allocate more money to districts with no strings attached.
"Nobody knows better than the local school district," said Johnnie White, a 35-year-old Democrat and cashier from Venice. "It's tough for somebody in Sacramento to say what a kid needs in South L.A. or Hawthorne."
Forty-nine percent of respondents opposed legislation that would ask voters to change the state Constitution to lower the threshold for passage of parcel taxes, from two-thirds to 55% of the vote. State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), the measure's author, has touted it as a way to give school districts the power to offset potential losses under Brown's funding plan.
But poll participants were not in the mood for more taxes, after an election in which billions of dollars in new levies were approved to help stave off education cuts. The Democratic and unaffiliated voters who supported Brown's tax-hike proposal in big numbers last November were lukewarm on a parcel-tax change. Republicans were firmly opposed.
"There's enough money there," said Ron Simington, 40, a Republican military contractor from Ramona. "I think it really comes down to mismanagement. The money just needs to be dealt with properly."
Since 2000, when voters lowered the vote threshold for local bonds to fund school construction, the passage rate for those measures increased dramatically. Less than half of the successful measures secured the two-thirds vote that was previously required.
The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll surveyed 1,501 registered voters by telephone March 11-17. The margin of error is 2.9 percentage points (4.9 points for the subgroup of Latino respondents).