Calif. Schools Caught Up in Ballot Tide

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The erratic El Nino weather patterns are not the only thing making life unpredictable in California, where a torrent of citizen initiatives is flooding the state with far-reaching school policy proposals.

Three of the five initiatives on the state's June 2 ballot target school-related issues. They would end most bilingual education, cap administrative spending by districts, and curtail unions' political activities. And signatures are being gathered for future ballot measures on college admissions and other education matters.

While such initiatives may be the sign of a vibrant democracy, school leaders in the state say the process is usurping local control and allowing well-financed interest groups to confuse long-term planning.

"It's so maddening," said Mike Stuart, the superintendent of the 5,000-student Shasta Union High School District in the northern California town of Redding. "You plan for five years, then an initiative comes along and tears it all up, and people complain we aren't planning."

But proponents of citizen-generated ballot proposals argue that they wouldn't have to resort to such efforts if state lawmakers were doing their jobs.

"The initiative process is especially necessary in California," said Sherri Annis, the spokeswoman for the "English for the Children" initiative that would virtually end bilingual education. "Political pressures in the legislature have led not only to poor policy, but no policy."

Growing Phenomenon

Californians have been able to leapfrog the traditional legislative process through initiatives since 1912. The mechanism gained new status 20 years ago, however, when the state's voters passed the massive property-tax-reduction measure known as Proposition 13.

Today, 24 states allow citizen initiatives. But with 52 initiatives on its ballots from 1990 through 1997, "California is definitely the number-one most active," said Jennie Drage, a research analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

And that activity sends ripples across the country, said David S. Liebschutz, the associate director for the Center for the Study of the States in Albany, N.Y. "The anti-tax fervor has caused some states to emulate California," he said. "It has also caused some governors and legislators in other states to make pre-emptive strikes to avoid initiatives."

Relying on the initiative process to effect educational change in the Golden State arguably began in 1988, when the California Teachers Association sponsored Proposition 98, a measure that succeeded in guaranteeing a minimum level of school aid based on state revenues. Still, there is no precedent for the number of school policy initiatives on this year's menu. And it seems as if everyone is involved.

For example, the 37,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles organized a petition drive to qualify Proposition 223 for the June ballot. The measure is commonly known as the 95/5 proposal because it would limit spending on school district administration, including bus maintenance and secretaries, to 5 percent of a district's revenues. Ninety-five percent would go to local schools.

"It arose out of teachers' frustrations with not getting resources into the classroom," said Steve Blazak, a spokesman for the union, whose members can be jointly affiliated with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. "We wanted a way to get that revenue stream to teachers uninterrupted by administrators."

Meanwhile, Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, is gathering signatures for a broad education reform package that, among other provisions, would create the office of a state inspector general of schools. Mr. Wilson resorted to the initiative process after lawmakers rejected his proposals.

In some cases, the threat of an initiative is enough to force legislative action. Sponsors of a campaign to liberalize state charter school laws last week pledged to burn the 1.2 million signatures they had collected after the California Assembly and Senate passed identical bills to pave the way for more charter schools.

"It seems like the ballot measures are pre-empting the legislature," said Gary Hart, the former Democratic state senator who is the director of the California State University Institute for Education Reform, based in Sacramento. "But if you look at the state's [low] test scores, combined with public concern for schools, education is ripe for this process."

'Never-Never Land'

Observers also offer other explanations for the growing popularity of school initiatives in California.

Robert M. Stern, a co-director of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit research group in Los Angeles, said that while state lawmakers have made schools their top priority, they've catered to a limited audience.

"Teachers' unions have such a stranglehold on legislation that voters have to go through the initiative process to get anything passed," he said.

And there is frustration over the endless battles between state leaders on issues such as academic standards and statewide tests.

"We're in this never-never land of not knowing what children should know and be able to do," said Michael W. Kirst, a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a University of California-based research consortium. "There's confusion over who's in charge."

Mr. Kirst said that today's initiatives are more focused and detailed than those of previous years, yet lack a common theme. "What I see is a set of cross-cutting proposals with no unifying strategy," he said.

For example, districts trying to prepare for new state academic standards by hiring curriculum specialists could find themselves hamstrung by Proposition 223's cap on administrative spending.

And once initiatives become law, they usually require a vote by the public to be repealed. "You don't have a legislative hearing process to clear up ambiguous language," Mr. Hart said. "That's one reason they end up in court so often."

For example, California voters passed Proposition 187 in 1994, which sought to deny illegal immigrants a free public education and most other public benefits. The measure has been tied up in the courts ever since.

Not everyone is critical, however. Dan Edwards, who is the spokesman for the California Department of Child Welfare and Education, said that initiatives bring issues home to voters.

"Sometimes, when you work outside of the legislature, you can get more factual information," he said. "It's not as politicized."

Money Matters

In addition to the June 2 measures, about 50 signature-gathering campaigns are under way to qualify proposals for the state's ballot in November or beyond.

One of the best predictors of any initiative's success is the amount of money behind the effort. After all, it takes 433,269 signatures to qualify for a vote on a statutory change, and 693,230 signatures for a measure that would amend the state constitution.

Angelo Paparella, the president of the political-consulting firm Progressive Campaigns, located in Santa Monica, said success can be guaranteed--for a price.

One service provided by Mr. Paparella's firm is signature-gathering. The going rate to gather enough signatures for a statutory change is from $600,000 to $1 million. The rate for a constitutional amendment jumps to between $1.2 million and $1.7 million.

"You certainly need money to get on the ballot," said Mr. Paparella, whose firm gathered signatures for the UTLA's Proposition 223. "But people from all political spectrums can contribute."

The English for the Children campaign spent nearly $1 million to qualify for the June ballot, about $600,000 of which came from Ron K. Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is spearheading the effort. Other groups have spent far more.

At the other end of the spectrum are grassroots efforts trying to buck the trend toward big-money campaigns.

A handful of students at the Boalt Hall Law School at the University of California, Berkeley, have amassed $20,000 in credit-card debt and cashed in their student-loan checks to finance a petition drive to overturn Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure that ended affirmative action by public agencies in California.

The group failed last winter to gather enough signatures to qualify for next November's ballot. Today, they are racing to meet a June 20 deadline to gather 800,000 signatures to qualify for the next general election, in June 2000.

"I'm grateful that the process exists because, without it, we couldn't amend a bad law," said Andrea Guerrero, a law student at UC-Berkeley who is helping to lead the effort. "In the same manner, we wouldn't be in this situation without the initiative process."

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