A WESTLY EDGE IN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE POLLING, AND WHY THE RELATIVELY SMALL LOTTERY FUNDS PLAY BIG IN HIS ADVERTISING
Public and private polls are telling us that California voters really worry about public education but aren’t willing to pay for it. And that they are uninformed about and mistrustful of the education system and the current officeholders overseeing it. It’s a formula for new faces and future recrimination.
The new Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll goes in depth on voter attitudes toward education, turning up widespread voter dismay yet no support for any tax increases except on the rich. Two private polls show that voters have high expectations of State Lottery reform, even though returns would actually be relatively modest.
This is why you’re seeing lottery reform mentioned so prominently in Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner Steve Westly’s education ads, even though his own estimation is that it would yield only about $100 million. It’s what most voters mistakenly think. Just as, during the 2003 recall election, private polling for Arnold Schwarzenegger showed that most voters believed that one third of the state’s budget was “waste, fraud, and abuse.” This allowed the former action superstar to say that his budget plan was “to audit all the books.”
With a private poll for an organization not involved in the primary showing a substantial edge among general election swing voters for Controller Westly over his Democratic rival, Treasurer Phil Angelides, in any match-up with Governor Schwazenegger, the PPIC poll focusing on education has Westly’s primary lead over Angelides up five points over his tiny edge in the PPIC poll completed 13 days before this poll began. In this poll, which has a much higher undecided — more than 50% — than the Field Poll due to different methodology, Westly led Angelides 26% to 20%. The poll was conducted from April 4 to April 19. Among voters concerned with education, the top issue, Westly led 29% to 20%.
Support for Proposition 82, controversial movie director Rob Reiner’s universal preschool initiative, was down to 51 percent.
But the poll, conducted over a whopping 16-day period, is clearly not geared to the latest on the political horse race but an in-depth view of attitudes on public education. Conducting it over such a long period of time is valid for what is essentially an issue survey because there were no fast-moving developments affecting issue attitudes.
The 58% of Californians saying education is a big problem is the highest in this decade. A third believe the quality of education has declined in the last two years. Sixty percent say the schools are not doing a good job readying students for work, 53% say the same of readying students for college, 44% believe the schools are doing a poor job even instilling basic skills.
Yet only 36% favor raising the sales tax and 24% favor raising property taxes to fund education improvements; 60% favor raising taxes on high income Californians. The poll doesn’t ask about so-called sin taxes on tobacco and alcohol, but would probably show a willingness by the majority to tax the habits of a minority.
“A lack of trust in government makes people reluctant to pay higher taxes, even for things they wholeheartedly support,” says PPIC Poll director Mark Baldassare. “They need to believe their money will be used efficiently.”
A whopping 83% of likely voters believe better use of existing funds is key to improving education. Accountability is a major underlying theme of the poll results, with over 70% believing that students should have to pass not only a statewide test in order to graduate from high school, but also statewide tests in order to be promoted to the next grade.
No politicians in their current offices fare well on this issue. Governor Schwarzenegger — whose job approval numbers in this poll are 38% approve, 50% disapprove — finds that only 29% approve of his handling of education. Yet that is higher than the 21% approving of the job of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, who faces no serious opposition for re-election. That anemic figure is matched by the Legislature, which with 21% approval and 55% disapproval has much worse numbers than the governor.
The polling on education, public and private, paints a bleak picture. A disgruntled and ill-informed electorate, supportive only of taxing someone else and demanding of internal reforms from officeholders in whom it has no faith. It’s a scenario ripe for a fresh face like Westly, whose campaign themes uncannily mirror the findings. But what happens if he gets into office and, for example, the voters belatedly learn that the Lottery provides only a small portion of the state’s education funding? Abruptly enlightened people are seldom happy.