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Voters dig deep for construction

Californian voters have approved about $2 billion (Pounds 1.3 billion) in spending on school construction. The result heartened teachers and may reflect the rise of public education as a national issue.

Two years ago California rejected state bonds to raise money for public schools. Repairs to buildings were left to mount up, and pupils used mobile classrooms.

But the new bond issue in proposition 203 was backed by a strong 62 per cent majority, with voters rallying even traditionally Conservative Orange county regarded as a bellwether of republican opinion.

"The main reaction is relief," said Mary Bergan, president of the California Teachers Association. "The situation out there in many school districts was grim. There was no more room at the inn."

California led the county into an anti-tax era with the celebrated proposition 13 in 1978. Two decades ago its schools were among the best funded in the US, but have slumped to near the bottom of the table.

But with the California economy pulling back from the depression of the early 1990s voters apparently feel more willing to open their wallets for schools. Locally nearly a third of people named education as their top political priority, second only to crime, with taxes third.

A California school head called the voting result "the best of the best of days". Ms Bergan and others cautioned there was a way to go, but she said it was cause for optimism.

The bond issue totalled $3 billion (Pounds 2 billion) with a third to go to higher education construction. Campaigners spent nearly $1 million (Pounds 666,000) on television advertising to persuade cynical voters that the money would really go to schools and not disappear in the bureaucracy.

Though it is not a traditional battleground in presidential elections, national polls this year show education narrowly leading taxes and crime and it is an area that people will look at to make voting choices.

The California vote seemed to mirror a national trend, said Michael Kirst, a professor of education at California's Standford University.

The vote was even more surprising because while about half of public school pupils are Asian and Hispanic only about 11 per cent of the voters who turned out last week were. Most being affluent white and more Conservative leading.

Nationally about half public school funding comes from state government, about 40 per cent from local property taxes, and only between 5 and 10 per cent from the federal government, most of that for specific categories like special education for the disabled.

But President Bill Clinton, apparently sniffing the political winds, has begun to mention education - notably school uniforms, touted as one solution to gang violence in schools, in campaign speeches.

Operating budgets at the state level have seen slow increases generally keeping up with the rate of inflation. But the system is strained in fast growing districts with surging numbers of pupils.

California is the destination for a steady stream of new immigrants from Asia and particularly Mexico. Los Angeles has to house a reported 140,000 new students every year.

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