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Opponents of Proposition 174 Hold Giant Fund-Raising Advantage

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If the conventional wisdom about ballot initiatives in California--that victory goes to the side with the most money to spend on media advertising--holds true, the school-voucher initiative appears headed for defeat next month.

Opponents of Proposition 174 currently hold a nearly nine-to-one fund-raising advantage over its backers.

"Historically, if there's asymmetrical spending ... and, particularly if the side that has more money is the 'no' side, it's really hard to get something passed,'' said Bruce Cain, the associate director of the Institute for Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

"If you've got more money than the other guy,'' he explained, "then you're going to put many more ads on television, and they can't counter them.''

Voucher opponents expect to spend up to 70 percent of their money on television and radio ads in all of the state's media markets, said Rick Manter, the executive vice president of Nelson Communications, which is handling the Citizens Against 174 campaign.

The outgunned proponents, on the other hand, plan to rely heavily on "free media,'' including radio talk shows, televised debates, and newspaper coverage, in addition to paid advertisements, according to Sean Walsh, a spokesman for the Yes-on-174 campaign.

Money and Accountability

Pro-voucher forces are trying to solidify support among conservative Republicans, private school parents, and African-Americans who are dissatisfied with the public schools. They are also reaching out to Hispanics, many of whose children are enrolled in Catholic schools.

One example of that effort is a planned $100,000 campaign by the Christian Coalition, a Virginia-based political-action group founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, which is airing radio spots on black and Hispanic stations in Los Angeles.

The opposition is hoping to get out the vote among public school employees and parents who are happy with their local public schools, including many suburban Republicans.

Both sides also are going after the elderly, an important swing vote that could be heavily influenced by fiscal issues.

Perhaps for that reason, money matters have figured prominently in the campaigns. The "no'' side has attempted to portray Proposition 174 as a dangerous experiment that would increase taxes and drain needed funds from neighborhood schools. But supporters have emphasized the potential for savings, since a voucher would cost the state only half of what it spends to educate each child in the public schools.

Both sides have also stressed accountability themes. Supporters portray the public schools as large, unresponsive bureaucracies, while opponents claim the initiative would turn over millions of dollars to voucher schools with minimal oversight.

Opponents also contend that voucher schools could discriminate against needy students. But advocates assert that the vouchers would increase the educational options available to poor and minority families.

Neither side is relying solely on a media campaign to get its message across. Both are conducting "full-service campaigns,'' distributing fliers, manning telephone lines, and sending missives and solicitations through the mail.

Full-Service Campaigns

"Right now, we have phone banks running six nights a week, and, on any given night, there are more than 500 volunteers making phone calls,'' Mr. Manter said, "so I think you can get some feel for how massive that effort is.''

President Clinton and Gov. Pete Wilson have spoken against the initiative. Heavy hitters on the pro-voucher side include former Gov. George Deukmejian and such prominent figures on the national Republican scene as former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack F. Kemp, and Sen. Robert Dole, the Senate minority leader.

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