Conservatives Take Best Shot at School Boards : Politics: Education Alliance activists who say their views are ignored fund a countywide network of candidates. Moderates and liberals fear a takeover by the religious right.
A new political group that grew out of last year’s bid to pass a school voucher initiative is helping to finance 30 candidates in 15 Orange County school board races this fall and creating the first-ever countywide network of conservative school board hopefuls.
Financed mostly by two conservative longtime philanthropists, John Crean and Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., the Tustin-based Education Alliance collected more than $36,000 this month and has used the money to help conservative candidates contact absentee voters, distribute campaign literature and plot strategy.
Friday night, the organization joined with the local Republican Party for a $100-a-plate fund-raiser celebrating the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s first political speech.
“The education establishment is trying to turn our schools into laboratories of social experiments. We don’t like that,” said Mark Bucher, a 35-year-old Tustin resident who runs the Education Alliance out of the offices of his construction company.
“The conservatives aren’t even in the game,” Bucher added. “We want to get them in the game.”
Education activists and moderate Republicans warned that the Educational Alliance’s emergence is part of a growing trend of activism in local races by religious and extremist groups. Some expressed fear that the conservative candidates the group supports want to destroy public schools.
“The danger here is that their whole mission and purpose is anti-public education,” said Elizabeth Parker, a county Board of Education member for the past 12 years.
Because of the Education Alliance’s roots in the 1993 campaign for Proposition 174, which would have given parents vouchers to spend at private, parochial or public schools, Parker said: “The bottom line is they want to weaken the public school system to where it doesn’t help anybody.”
Bucher denied any connection between his group and the religious right, saying he does not even know the religious views of most of the candidates his organization funds. The Education Alliance’s chief “battle cry,” Bucher said, is to increase local control of schools and give parents more power.
The emergence of a group of conservative candidates connected across district lines has brought one of the conflicts plaguing the national Republican Party down to a local level. Most of the candidates receiving money from the Education Alliance were also endorsed by the right-wing California Republican Assembly. But many are trying to unseat Republicans, which irks the party’s moderate wing.
“We have to fight the Democrats on the left side and the extremist wackos on the right. We’re having a hell of a time, getting shot from both sides,” complained Roger Hughes, a public school teacher who chairs the Orange County chapter of the moderate California Republican League.
“There are a lot of good Republicans on the school boards now,” Hughes said. “There appears to be a deliberate decision by the extremists within the Republican Party to try to replace all those people, as they (are) . . . trying to set up a theocracy.”
In general, candidates backed by the Education Alliance oppose federal and state curriculum guidelines and want a “back to basics” approach to education that emphasizes American values rather than multiculturalism, Bucher said.
They oppose curriculum reforms and exams such as the California Learning Assessment System; support abstinence-only sex education; reject any effort to establish health clinics or distribute condoms on campus; and believe creationism and evolution should be both taught as “theories” rather than sure facts, he said.
“Everybody seems to think there’s some kind of ulterior motive behind this. There’s not,” Bucher said. “Everybody’s trying to say we’re the religious right, and we’re not.
“We believe that schools exist to assist parents in the education of their children. We want to return the schools to the parents.”
Jon H. Soeder, a Tustin Unified candidate who has received nearly $1,300 from the Educational Alliance and attended its campaign seminars, said the PAC is not “this huge, cohesive group” but “just some concerned people getting together.”
“It (is) really quite nice,” Soeder said. “It’s very refreshing because sometimes you think you’re the only one.”
The Education Alliance has no religious affiliation, but its agenda is similar to those of the Christian Coalition, the Traditional Values Coalition and Citizens for Excellence in Education, three conservative national Christian groups.
“It’s become unpopular to align yourself with CEE and TVC, so rather than directly associating themselves, you find organizations are distancing themselves even though they have the same agenda,” said Jean Hessburg, California director of the liberal organization People for the American Way. “The agenda is antithetical to public education, period.”
Bucher said his group wants to “save” public schools from liberal forces such as teachers unions, which for years have donated money to candidates.
A loose group of volunteers who met during the failed Prop. 174 campaign, the Education Alliance has run campaign seminars for candidates, paid to put their names on two conservative voter slate-mailers, and supplied postage for mailings to absentee voters.
According to campaign finance statements for the period from Oct. 1 to Oct. 22, Ahmanson gave the Education Alliance $20,000 and Crean gave the group $10,000. A handful of others gave smaller contributions for a total of $36,234 since the campaign began.
Bucher said organizers did not expect to raise nearly that much money.
Ahmanson is a Christian fundamentalist banking heir who heads Fieldstead & Co. in Irvine. He was one of the original members of the Allied PAC founded by businessman Rob Hurtt, now a Republican state senator representing Garden Grove, and was a key backer of Prop. 174. Ahmanson gave more than $400,000 to the failed effort.
Crean, a multimillionaire from Newport Beach who heads the recreational vehicle company Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., is well-known for his cable television cooking show and the many charity events he and his wife host at their Santa Ana Heights mansion.
Activists who met during the failed voucher campaign last year have formed a political action committee, the Education Alliance, to help elect conservatives to local school boards. Here is how much the group has given candidates in various districts:
Anaheim Union High School
* Treva Brown: $675
Fountain Valley Elementary
* Kerryn Coffman: $803
* Benny Moore: 803
* Lyle J. Menzel: 803
Garden Grove Unified
* Terry Cantrell: $1,205
* Bob Harden: 1,205
Huntington Beach Elementary
* William L. Young: $1,170
* James Bieber: 675
Huntington Beach High School
* Leon E. McKinney: $1,071
* James Ball: 1,071
* Joseph J. Wagner: 1,071
* James A. Graves: $675
* Hank Adler: 675
Los Alamitos Unified
* Diane E. Gilkerson: $971
* Wendy Leece: $1,535
Ocean View Elementary
* Gordon Busch: $1,128
* Bryan Bridges: 675
Placentia/Yorba Linda Unified
* Cathy Ann Brooks: $1,444
* Patrick L. Hanrahan: 675
* Brett W. Smith: $675
* David T. Leland: 675
Saddleback Valley Unified
* Dave Schultz: $1,275
* Pat Soriano: 1,275
* Dana Adams: $978
* Jon H. Soeder: $1,298
* Jonathan W. Abelove: 350
* Jane Bauer: 350
* Laurie De Koning: $850
* Stephanie Erickson: 850
* Sondra Rinker: 850
The following candidates have received some support from the Education Alliance but have not received monetary contributions:
Rancho Santiago College
* Shirley A. Ralston
* Euiwon Chough
* Ralph Zehner
Lowell Joint Elementary
* Janet B. Averill
Sources: Orange County registrar of voters; Education Alliance; Researched by JODI WILGOREN / Los Angeles Times