Effort to Sabotage School Voucher Petitions Alleged

TIMES STAFF WRITER

California Teachers Assn. members are trying to sabotage efforts to gather enough signatures to place a school voucher initiative on the November ballot, the president of the measure's sponsoring organization charged Thursday.

David J. Harmer, president of the Excellence through Choice in Education League, said those who gather petition signatures "are being physically blocked by people who identify themselves as CTA members."

CTA officials acknowledged that volunteers are confronting prospective petition signers, urging them not to sign, but said their methods are "educational, not physical." The 230,000-member teachers union, along with other public school groups, opposes the voucher plan because it would take money from public schools and subsidize private schools.

Harmer said petition gatherers have been challenged in San Diego, Ventura, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Huntington Beach, among other places.

He said on one occasion, "several people who said they were CTA members formed a human chain" to keep would-be signers from the table where the petition was displayed.

"It's one thing to advocate opposition to an initiative but it's another thing to try to keep people from exercising their rights," Harmer said.

But Harmer conceded that the campaign against the initiative--which would provide vouchers worth about $2,500 for every school-age child, money that could be used to pay for private or parochial school tuition--is working.

He said only 180,000 signatures have been gathered, with two months to go. The group aims at obtaining more than 900,000 names, in hopes that 617,000 of them will prove to be valid signatures.

"We're stuck at about 35,000 signatures a week," Harmer said. "It's not because people don't care about the initiative . . . it's because we're facing this organized harassment campaign.

"We'll still make it, but it's going to be a tougher fight."

Michael Arno, president of American Petition Consultants, which was hired to gather the signatures, said there have been at least 40 attempts to keep people from signing the petitions.

"There's a concerted effort to do whatever they can to dissuade people from signing the petitions," Arno said. "They get in between the signer and the petition. They scream at people. They threaten people. They cause us trouble at shopping centers and malls because store owners don't want that kind of trouble.

"Not only do teachers not want people to have a choice in education," he said. "They don't want to give voters a choice, either."

Arno said these tactics also are hampering his company's signature-gathering efforts for other initiatives, including Gov. Pete Wilson's proposal to reduce welfare payments.

Ned Hopkins, CTA assistant executive director, said his organization and other education groups opposed to the Parental Choice Initiative have dispatched groups of "leafleteers" to try to persuade people not to sign the petitions.

"Are we trying to interfere with their ability to get enough signatures to qualify?" he asked. "Yes, that's our intention, there's no doubt about that."

But "we've told them they have 1st Amendment rights but so do the petition pushers and they've got to respect those rights," Hopkins said.

He said the leaflet distributors have been trained to follow 15 rules, including "Do not threaten the petition pusher" and "Do not use a handle or stick on the poster or raise it above your shoulders."

"But that some individuals might get overzealous is not a surprise," Hopkins said. "That happens in every campaign."

He said the anti-voucher coalition has hired a signature-gathering company, Kimball Associates Petition Management of Tarzana, "to advise us." He said the firm has been hired specifically to keep the voucher initiative off the ballot, not for the usual reason of helping to qualify a measure.

"It's been very useful to us in knowing how to discourage potential signers," Hopkins said. "We go to places where they (Kimball's company) have indicated signature gatherers are likely to be. We stand near, but not too near--10 or 12 feet from the table--and ask people to read our flyers."

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