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Christian Activists Score Gains in San Diego County

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Candidates who were backed by conservative Christian and anti-abortion organizations have won majorities on four school boards in San Diego County, Calif., according to a report by People for the American Way analyzing the outcome of this month's election.

Nationwide, the liberal advocacy group estimated that candidates supported by conservative Christian groups won more than 40 percent of the state and local races in which they were running.

In school board races across the country, 31 percent of the candidates backed by the groups won.

Some of the groups that were most active in endorsing candidates were the Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, the National Right to Life Committee, the National Right to Life PAC, and the Eagle Forum, the report notes.

It does not mention Citizens for Excellence in Education, a La Mesa, Calif., organization that is leading a major national effort to elect Christian activists to school boards, because the group does not formally endorse candidates. (See Education Week, Oct. 7, 1992.)

Robert Simonds, the president of C.E.E., could not be reached last week for comment on how C.E.E.-backed candidates fared in the election.

People for the American Way describes the groups that it tracks as "extremist'' and out of the mainstream of American thinking. In general, conservative Christian activists believe that the public schools have lost sight of their primary academic missions in favor of teaching sex education, self-esteem, and other topics that they argue only families should teach. Some would like to return prayer to the schools.

The defeat of a Colorado ballot initiative that would have provided state-funded vouchers that parents could use at the public or private school of their choice was a loss for conservative Christian groups, the report says.

San Diego Battleground

The groups scored their biggest gains in San Diego County, where about one-third of candidates who had the support of conservative Christian organizations were elected.

That number stands in sharp contrast, however, to 1990, when about two-thirds of candidates for a wide variety of public offices were elected with the support of Christian groups, said Michael Hudson, the vice president of People for the American Way.

The 1990 victories took many residents by surprise and led to efforts by P.F.A.W. and grassroots voter-education groups, such as the Mainstream Voters Project, to make the agendas of the organizations backing these candidates widely known.

"I think the real important story is that we and the Mainstream Voters Project put a lot of effort into San Diego County trying to reduce the trend since 1990,'' Mr. Hudson said, "and we turned it around from a two-thirds success rate to one-third.''

"In other areas,'' he added, "the religious right did better than that and got at least 40 percent.''

Actual Support in Doubt

Candidates backed by the California Pro-Life Council and other groups won seats on school boards in Escondido, Cajon Valley, and Vista, giving what the report says is a controlling vote on the boards to Christian-backed members. The study also claims that Christian-backed members will hold sway over the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College board.

But whether all of the candidates actually support the agendas of such organizations remains an open question, said Kathy Frasca, a founder of the Mainstream Voters Project.

Several candidates "were so eager to win that they took anybody's endorsement,'' Ms. Frasca said. "They might not carry out the agenda.''

On the community-college board and in the communities of Escondido and Cajon Valley, she said, "I don't think you're going to see these school boards controlled by their principles.''

In Vista, two newly elected candidates who were supported by the California Pro-Life Council will join with an incumbent who was supported by conservative Christian groups to form a school board majority, Mr. Hudson said.

"I don't think there's any question about that one,'' he said.

John Tyndall, an accountant for the Institute for Creation Research in Santee who won a seat on the Vista board with conservative Christian support, said he objected to being painted as an extremist. He said he answered the candidate questionnaires that were distributed by some conservative groups and "didn't mind their endorsements.'' But he added that he was "not a member of their organizations.''

"I am not ashamed of being a Christian,'' Mr. Tyndall said, complaining that some groups have labeled him "an enemy of public education'' because of his faith.

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