School-Voucher Plan To Be on November Ballot in Calif.

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Gov. Pete Wilson of California has set the stage for a sooner-than-expected showdown over school choice by calling a statewide special election for Nov. 2.

Mr. Wilson late last month formally scheduled the election on a proposal to give voters in each county a chance to raise sales taxes to avoid cuts in government services.

But under the state constitution, all qualified ballot initiatives--including a controversial school-voucher plan--will also be placed before voters at that time.

Advocates of the school-choice proposal narrowly missed qualifying it for the ballot in November 1992. But they gathered enough petition signatures last year to qualify it for the next statewide election, which, but for the Governor's decision, would have been in June 1994.

The initiative would provide parents with state-funded scholarships to help send their children to private or parochial schools.

If the measure passes, California would become the first state to use taxpayer money on a large scale to finance private school education.

Similar ballot measures failed in Oregon in 1990 and in Colorado in 1992.

Under the proposal, the vouchers would be worth about half of what the state now spends per pupil on its public schools, or about $2,600 per child. Public school spending would be cut by that amount for every child who departed a local school system.

Because students already enrolled in private schools would be eligible for the vouchers, financially strapped local school systems would be hit by an immediate loss in funding that opponents estimate at 10 percent.

Tough Fight Expected

Rumors had been circulating for months that Mr. Wilson would call a special election to help deal with the state's bleak financial picture.

Shortly after the announcement, both sides in the voucher debate were already gearing up for a tough fight.

A coalition of school groups, known as the Committee to Educate Against Vouchers, has vowed to spend whatever it takes to defeat the measure.

"The voucher proposal is the single greatest threat to ever face schoolchildren in California,'' said Del Weber, the president of the California Teachers Association.

"By calling for an early election,'' he said, "the Governor will help remove this cloud hanging over the future of our neighborhood schools.''

Mr. Weber challenged Mr. Wilson, who has not yet taken a stance on the proposal, to declare his opposition.

Some observers suggested that the shortened time frame will make it harder for supporters of the initiative to raise enough money to carry on an effective campaign.

Advocates, led by a group called the Excellence through Choice in Education League, refused to say how much they hoped to raise.

"We're going to win this on the merits, not on how much we can raise,'' said Kevin D. Teasley, the group's director.

The new election date gives each side only five months to sell its stand to the public. Both supporters and critics claimed that the accelerated schedule could help their cause.

As in any special election, voter turnout is likely to be a crucial factor. Republicans and conservatives, who are more likely to back vouchers, are expected to be drawn to the polls by opposition to the sales-tax proposal. But the tax issue could also attract a number of suburban voters, who generally support their public schools.

In addition, the teachers' unions have a strong record of bringing their members out for off-year elections.

Vol. 12, Issue 36

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