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THE SHAPE OF EDUCATION REFORM

In the political wars over fixing education, one side yells: "Spend more money on public schools." The other side yells: "Give kids vouchers to try private schools."

As it happens, this is one issue on which both George W. Bush and Al Gore offer more sophistication than sloganeering. Where they agree may matter more than where they disagree.

Yes, Bush has a modest voucher plan and, yes, Gore spends more federal money. But both acknowledge there's a problem that needs fixing. Both would push to make schools and teachers more accountable. Both favor alternatives to existing schools when they fail. Jointly, Bush and Gore are staking out the ground for the future of education reform.

Still, the spending-vs.-vouchers debate is real, and California's voters will address it this November. What's happening in California shows how the political world has turned upside down in two decades, and how the high-tech industry is helping to program the change.

The battle is reflected in two proposals on the California ballot. Proposition 38 would give a $4,000 voucher to every one of the state's 6.6 million schoolchildren to use in the private school of their choice. It's the most far-reaching voucher proposal ever put to an electorate. Proposition 39 would make it easier to pass local bond issues to rebuild the state's troubled public school system.

Currently, school bonds require approval by a two-thirds vote. Under Proposition 39, they'd pass if 55 percent of voters said yes.

The polls suggest vouchers are losing and new spending is winning. A recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Proposition 38 going down by a 53-to-37 percent margin. But Proposition 39 was running ahead, 49-to-37 percent.

True, the voters could change their minds between now and November, and venture capitalist Tim Draper, architect of the voucher initiative, has vowed to spend what it takes to win. But if his proposal does lose, it will underscore the core difficulty confronting voucher advocates. They have to persuade voters that doing something many see as a good thing (providing more choice in schools) will not also entail doing what many see as a bad thing (pulling money out of existing public schools attended by the vast majority of children).

Although the voucher proposal will get more attention, the bond initiative may have larger implications. Pro-education forces in California have long wanted to make it easier to pass bond issues to build and improve the state's overcrowded schools. But Garry South, who is California Gov. Gray Davis' top political honcho, said the two-thirds requirement has killed many a local school bond. They often carry 60 percent of the vote - reflecting the local consensus on fixing the schools - but fall short of the magic 66.7 percent.

Last March, California voters narrowly rejected a proposal that would have allowed school bonds to pass by a simple majority. After the defeat, Davis' political operation teamed up with leaders of California's high-tech industry to put together a more appealing proposal, and a more effective campaign.

The political power behind Proposition 39 is measured by the support it has received from Davis, a Democrat, and his Republican predecessor, former Gov. Pete Wilson. The business leadership behind Prop 39 reads like a who's who of Silicon Valley, including John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems, and venture capitalist John Doerr.

"Our K-through-12 system is completely broken," Chambers said in an interview. While Chambers, a Republican, is sympathetic to school choice, he argued that fixing the public schools was a precondition to equalizing opportunity in the Internet age. "It isn't about leaving back 5 or 10 percent of our country," he says. "We'll leave back 50 percent."

California, of course, is the state that led the nation into the tax revolt 22 years ago with the passage of Proposition 13. South says passage of the school bond referendum this year would be a sign of how much politics has changed. Tax cutting, he says, "is just not the kind of massive, energizing issue it was in 1978 or even in the 1980s under Reagan."

Now, he says, "the intensity of feeling" is behind the cause of "improving the public schools." It's a feeling bolstered by political and financial support from the high-tech world. That explains why tax cuts aren't selling well on the campaign trail this year. When education matters more than taxes, you know it's not the 1980s anymore.

Washington Post Writers Group

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