Three propositions on the June ballot are barreling at California’s education establishment, each with strong voter support and potentially profound consequences for the state’s public school system, the largest in the nation.
Many educators, though not all, view the measures as a radical, unwanted shake-up of a system that they acknowledge is imperfect. One measure, Proposition 227, would throttle bilingual education. Another, Proposition 223, would hamstring school administrators. And a third, Proposition 226, would shackle political fund-raising by advocates for public schools.
Defeating any one would cost millions of dollars. Defeating all of them could cost more money than key opponents have. So this has become a season of political triage as education groups–some at odds with one another–divvy up money among campaigns clamoring for help.
The California Teachers Assn. is digging deep to fight an initiative that would limit how unions and others can raise money for political campaigns through paycheck dues deductions. Those behind the measure include prominent supporters of school vouchers, who are bitter enemies of the California Teachers Assn. and other teachers unions.
The Assn. of California School Administrators is leading the campaign against another initiative backed by the Los Angeles teachers union to cap the amount of money schools can spend on overhead. At stake in this struggle are millions of dollars that proponents say would be channeled into classrooms statewide and that foes contend would be gobbled up by large urban districts in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
But it is not yet clear who will lead the attack for the education establishment against the third, widely publicized initiative, sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron K. Unz and Orange County teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman.
Proposition 227 would channel students with limited English skills into mainstream classes after one year of so-called English immersion, prohibiting bilingual classes, with few exceptions. It would mark the most radical shift in policy in more than 20 years in how the state teaches its rapidly growing population of schoolchildren whose first language is not English.
Opponents of the measure vow an all-out effort. They have across-the-board endorsements from the education establishment in a lineup reminiscent of the successful 1993 effort to defeat a statewide school voucher measure.
But it’s one thing to have endorsements and another to raise enough money to advertise on television in a state with 14 million voters. For now, the anti-Proposition 227 campaign, which is far behind in statewide polls, is just one of several competing for political funding from education groups.
“When you have so many initiatives, it spreads the resources even thinner,” said Michael Kirst, a Stanford University education professor. Education groups, he added, “are divided and partially conquered. They have to pick their shots, and they have a lot of tough choices. With so many things going on, some things get lower priority.” Other initiatives could land on the November ballot, each expected to draw close scrutiny from educators wary of proposals for “reform” of the state’s 5.6-million student system.
Analysts note that every dollar that education groups spend on defense is a dollar not spent on the causes they support enthusiastically, such as school construction bonds and the reduction of the two-thirds majority threshold for passing local bonds. There are also contests for governor, the Legislature, Congress and state superintendent of public instruction in a year in which education appears to be one of the top issues for politicians at all levels.
Historically, the dominant financial player has been the teachers association, whose officials say they anticipated an onslaught of rly. We’re still four months before the election,” said poll director Mark DiCamillo. “But there is a lot more awareness about the Unz initiative, and so people are giving a more developed opinion.”
That presents a formidable challenge for the campaign to defeat Unz. To win voters–who now favor the initiative by a 2-1 margin–opponents will have to turn around notions about how children with limited English skills should learn the language.
That obstacle leads to another. Potential donors to the campaign must be persuaded that their money is not given to a doomed cause.
Richie Ross, chief strategist for the campaign, who says he has donations and firm pledges totaling $1.3 million, said donors will redouble their aid once they see his campaign chipping away at Unz’s lead. That appears to be happening already with Latino voters, now evenly split on the measure after supporting it by a wide margin a few months ago, according to the Field poll.
“We’re clearly more reliant on people’s altruism,” Ross said. “I think even given that, what the educational establishment has stepped up to do for us already is extraordinarily generous, given the severity of what they’re facing” on other fronts. Unz, a self-made millionaire, said he is anticipating a low-budget campaign. He said his spending will depend on the degree of opposition his initiative faces. “I would suspect that many of those [education] organizations will concentrate their firepower on issues that are more crucial to their future well-being,” Unz said.
School administrators acknowledge their top priority is defeating Proposition 223, which they say would cripple small and mid-size school districts by imposing an unfair 5% limit on overhead. The statewide average, depending on who does the calculating, is 7% to 9%.
The measure, backed by United Teachers-Los Angeles and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, would permit fines against districts that exceed the cap. Bob Wells, assistant executive director of the school administrators’ group, said it plans to raise $1 million to defeat the measure. It’s not clear how much will be spent on the measure’s behalf.
John Perez, a United Teachers-Los Angeles vice president, said the union affiliate spent more than $100,000 to gather signatures needed to qualify the measure for the ballot. But he said it is also committed to helping defeat other initiatives, including Proposition 226.
That initiative, sponsored by three conservative Orange County education activists, would require employers and unions to obtain annual permission from employees and union members before withholding pay or levying dues for political use. Organizers of the so-called Campaign Reform Initiative reported receiving $1.3 million in aid through December, including a $441,000 in-kind donation from Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative anti-tax group based in Washington.
Although Proposition 226 would affect many groups outside the school community, it has become intertwined with California education politics because of the leading role of the teachers association.
Whether or not this year’s initiatives are part of a coordinated attack on the association would be hard to determine. But the net effect is to throw the union–and by extension, many players in the public school community–on the defensive.
“It is a bit overwhelming to see so many initiatives that have such harmful consequences for our schools all on the ballot at the same time,” said Wells, whose group is opposed to the three June propositions. “Somebody described it as trying to take a drink out of a fire hose. It’s coming at us that fast.”
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Education leaders are battling three separate initiatives on the June ballot:
Proposition 223: Would prohibit school districts from spending more than 5% for administration beginning with the 1999-2000 school year.
Proposition 226: Would require labor organizations to get permission annually from individual members before using union dues for political contributions.
Proposition 227: Would require public school instruction to be conducted in English and end most bilingual education programs.