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Mo. Voters To Decide Fate of $380-Million School, Tax Plan

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.--Although they agree that the statewide tax and school-reform referendum on Missouri's ballot next week is a high-stakes issue, leading politicians and educators here do not always seem in accord over what it is or how to get it passed.

To some backers, the measure represents a comprehensive agenda for changing education, while to others it is beginning to look increasingly like a survival kit against financial disaster.

Similarly, advocates have been divided at times over whether the best way to win a majority vote for the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot is with a high-profile movement or a low-key scramble aimed at slipping by the public largely unnoticed.

The $380-million proposal, known as Proposition B, will be the only item on the ballot across most of the state. Despite little organized opposition, supporters have planned a flurry of activity in the next few days to build support for the bill, which would provide equal amounts of new funding for the public schools and for higher education.

The Missouri referendum also will be the only major education-related issue on statewide ballots anywhere in the country next week. On Oct. 15, Oklahoma voters narrowly turned back an attempt to repeal a tax-increase and school-reform package passed by the legislature.

Along with Oklahoma, then, the fate of the Missouri referendum will be the key test this year of whether the public is willing to accept a statewide tax increase for education in the middle of a recession. Given the substantial number of state legislatures that are likely to face a choice early next year between tax hikes and education cuts, the results from Missouri could be a crucial piece of evidence indeed.

"We've been telling people to look at Nebraska [where voters last year upheld a tax hike for school-finance reform] and Oklahoma and some of those previous votes as well as Missouri, but it will make a difference," said John L. Myers, education-program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Certainly, legislators will be very interested because this is a case where they are tying reforms and dollars together. A lot of times in the past, those things have been separated."

'More Than a Beginning'

At the center of the Missouri campaign is Gov. John D. Ashcroft, a former professor and university official.

Mr. Ashcroft has thrown his prestige behind the referendum, and its fate could mark an important point in his effort to move onto the national education stage. The second-term Republican Governor recently became chairman of the National Governors' Association and proclaimed that education reform would be the group's top priority.

Behind the desk in his Capital office, tall windows offer a panorama of the Missouri River valley. The Governor's view of the education plan's importance is no less sweeping. With its passage, Mr. Ashcroft said, his state could quickly become a leader in the effort to reach the national education goals adopted by the N.G.A. and President Bush. "It's more than a beginning point," Mr. Ashcroft said of the referendum's reforms. "Virtually everything in this proposition is tied to program improvement. This is a very important reform package."

The package would collect $190 million in a trust fund for elementary and secondary schools. Of that, $150 million would be used to increase general state aid, once the legislature adopts a new, more equitable school-finance system.

Of the remainder, $15.3 million would go to reduce average class sizes to 15 students, $5.7 million to expand the state's innovative Parents as Teachers program, and $8 million for new services for poor preschoolers.

The new money would come from raising the sales tax by three- eighths of a cent, dropping the state tax deduction for federal taxes, extending a special tax on the income of large corporations, and increasing cigarette and tobacco taxes.

Reforms that would come without funding include school report cards, an alternative-certification plan, a longer school year, and a public-school-choice program.

"This money can't be spent to shore up the football program," the Governor said, noting that the plan would create a trust fund and impose conditions on both the state and local districts before the money could be distributed and spent.

Mr. Ashcroft said he uses this new approach to funding the reforms as a prime selling point as he makes appearances on behalf of the plan.

"It is arguable that, on the margin, this will just benefit education in general, but the fact is this is a bill that will implement reform," Mr. Ashcroft said. "There isn't a dollar that can be taken from this bill without reforms. Circumstances won't determine what this bill is. It is a trust fund, and there isn't a dollar in this bill that can be devoted to any general purpose."

Districts' Lifesaver

Despite Mr. Ashcroft's insistence on reforms, though, many Missouri officials think the referendum's funds are seen more as a lifesaver by districts still reeling from a 10 percent cut in the state education budget last year. Several have reported being on the verge of bankruptcy, with only the hope that Proposition B will come to their rescue.

"When we developed the package, it was not designed to make ends meet," said Ray Schneider, an aide to President Pro Tem of the Senate James L. Mathewson. "This was designed to make improvements, but as times have changed, we can readily see that some districts are in need of help, and this will be that means of help."

"It would be interesting to know where we would be and what we would be looking at if we didn't have Proposition B available now," said Mr. Schneider, who is also co-director of Missourians for Quality Education, the group backing the referendum.

But Mr. Ashcroft sees the ballot question as casting a spotlight on voters' dedication to education reforms and school improvement.

"This may be a test of our ability to communicate" the need for change, he said. "People want to know what the bottom line is, and I don't think they will reject things that really value student achievement."

On the other hand, he added, "I don't think anybody is interested in paying more money for what they're getting now." "This is not a tax measure, it's an education measure," he said, adding later, "This is not an education bill, it is a bill for the state of Missouri ."

Voters Largely Uninformed

While early statewide polls showed that most people supported Proposition B, the surveys also found that about 60 percent of the people initially did not know what it involved.

The widespread unfamiliarity was not altogether unexpected. Campaign strategists, expecting a low voter turnout for the off-year election, have focused their $1.4 million on direct-mail and telephone contacts with "frequent voters," including senior citizens and educators.

The campaign also has emphasized the proposition's education highlights, with sparse mention of the tax hikes involved.

A visit with the members of the Lioness Club in the little town of Warrenton last week made clear that many voters had yet to learn much about the proposal.

Discussion of Proposition B was not on the agenda of the club's autumn fund raiser, which was held in a cinderblock clubhouse at the local fairgrounds. When the subject was introduced to a group of members, the dialogue focused as much on explanation as opinion.

"I have not found out that much about it," said Brenda Thrasher, the club's vice president. She said that an article on the referendum in her Sunday newspaper did not provide the specifics she needed before making a decision.

Another member, Kim Russom, said she knew little about the referendum, but added that she was skeptical of calls for increased school funding. "It depends on what the money is going to be used for," she said. "It depends on if they are going to teach the children anything or if they are just going to hire more teachers."

Most club members agreed that previous efforts at the state and local levels to increase school funding have shown little in the way of results. Many criticized the state's administration of lottery funds, which they had assumed would supplement education spending but in fact go into general revenues. The Lionesses also voiced a lack of confidence in the way administrators spend school funds. "No matter how you vote, it gets switched around and goes for something else," said the club's president, Carol Himmelsbach.

"They always say they need more money," Ms. Thrasher added.

Undecided Voters

No one at last week's club meeting had decided to vote for the measure, although one member was leaning toward voting against it. "There hasn't been a whole lot of information on it," Ms. Himmelsbach said.

Campaign officials hope that media spending in the days prior to the vote, stepped-up appearances by Mr. Ashcroft, and an expected endorsement from a tax-watchdog group this week will help sway Ms. Himreelsbach and other undecided voters.

The campaign has faced little public criticism. Some special-program advocates have complained that their programs should have been included, while others have attacked the sales-tax hike as regressive.

Education groups have been almost uniformly supportive, although teachers' unions in St. Louis and Kansas City have expressed some reservations about how the bill would affect funding for the cities' desegregation plans.

Mr. Schneider said the greatest task for the campaign is to persuade voters that the education improvements will be worth the tax hike. "It is difficult sometimes to overcome the message of the free press, and they like to say that this is a tax bill instead of an education bill," he said.

To combat that, Mr. Ashcroft last week toured smaller towns, including Cape Girardeau, Hannibal, and Springfield. This week, the Governor's schedule includes a Monday appearance in St. Louis with U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, a Tuesday appearance in Kansas City, another St. Louis visit next Sunday, and "fly-around" steps across the state on election eve.

Demand for Reforms

Mr. Ashcroft opposed the first version of the proposal, which was introduced this year by Mr. Mathewson.

"When it was a Lax bill, I wasn't associated with it," Mr. Ashcroft said. "I said, 'I will be a party if I can put reforms in the package.'"

But Mr. Mathewson, a Democrat, recalls a more partisan struggle that focused on reform only after it was clear that the bill would pass despite Mr. Ashcroft's opposition. "Absolutely it was never intended to be just a tax increase," Mr. Mathewson said. '"There was a purpose behind every dollar, as there still is, and secondary to that was that it would require more money."

The bill won strong support in the Senate but faced stiffer odds when it moved to the House, where Republicans were solidly against it.

Mr. Mathewson conceded that part of the Governor's opposition was due to a lack of several key reform provisions that Mr. Ashcroft had insisted upon in his State of the State address. But, Mr. Mathewson contended, the Governor also was against the plan's tax increases.

"One of his big provisions was 'reforms,' but I kept saying to him, 'Show me what you're talking about. Show me what you are saying,'" the senator said. "He hadn't offered a plan."

Mr. Ashcroft's interest in the proposal surfaced just when it became apparent that House Democrats could pass the bill on their own.

"He came to my office the next morning, and he has played an important role since then," Mr. Mathewson said.

Mr. Ashcroft's involvement led to inclusion in the proposition of proposals for school report cards, alternative certification, a longer school year, and school choice. Just as important, however, has been Mr. Ashcroft's visibility in support of the statewide referendum.

"I knew he had to be there," Mr. Mathewson said. "I recognized that there was no way I would ever be successful with this issue unless the Governor was on board."

Mr. Mathewson said he now feels confident that the measure will pass, even if not by a wide margin.

"We set about to recognize the need for further funding in education and stronger accountability," he said. "We just hadn't put enough emphasis on funding education at the state level."

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