When Elizabeth Zamora received a letter from Cal State Dominguez Hills stating that her application for the fall semester was on hold pending the outcome of Proposition 30, the prospective student said she was shocked.
"It's scary to think I won't be able to get into a four-year university next year," said Zamora, who is currently attending Cerritos College. "I felt like I wanted to vote for Prop. 30, but seeing that letter made me want to vote for it even more."
From sending letters to prospective college students to using automated phone calls reminding parents to vote, education officials are pushing harder than ever for the passage of Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative.
With less than two weeks before the Nov. 6 elections, officials have been stressing the potentially devastating impacts on public education if the measure fails.
But some critics call these methods scare tactics and in at least one case say the educators' efforts violated election laws.
This month, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an anti-tax group and major opponent of Prop. 30, filed a lawsuit against Cal State Monterey Bay over an email sent by a professor urging students to support the measure.
The email urged recipients to support Prop. 30 and push others to vote for it, while warning of dire consequences if it fails. It also noted that students would receive a $498 tuition reimbursement if the initiative passes.
Because the email was sent using university-issued equipment, it violates California campaign law that prohibits the use of public resources for mass political mailings, the lawsuit states.
Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association President Jon Coupal said the issue of using taxpayer dollars to push for Prop. 30 is a problem throughout the K-12 and university systems.
"In our view this is a systemic campaign of public resources being used for political advocacy, which violates California law," he said.
Education officials, however, say it's their duty to make voters aware of the impacts on public education if Prop. 30 fails.
On the campuses of universities, community colleges and K-12 schools, education leaders have held numerous press conferences and rallies in recent months to promote their message.
At the latest such event Friday, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson and nearly two dozen Southland superintendents gathered at Gonsalves Elementary in Cerritos to reach out to voters.
"What we face is the biggest challenge to public education since the state of California was founded," Torlakson said. "We're here united in the hope that voters will realize what's at stake. We're here to say Prop. 30 is essential for public education to get back on its feet."
Torlakson was joined by Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy, L.A. County Superintendent Art Delgado and a group of 20 superintendents representing school systems in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Designed mainly to fund California's schools, Prop. 30 increases personal income tax on annual earnings over $250,000 for seven years and also increases sales and use tax by a quarter cent for four years, generating an estimated $6 billion annually.
Supporters say the measure prevents massive cuts to education and provides billions of dollars in funding for classrooms.
Opponents say Prop. 30 is a temporary fix that doesn't guarantee new funding for schools, and furthermore, doesn't address the need to cut waste and administrative overhead.
With Election Day closing in, the message from advocates may be more dire than ever.
A recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found that voter support has slipped since September. According to the numbers, just under half of voters -- 48 percent -- would vote "yes" on Prop. 30.
Education officials said the loss of Prop. 30 would create a $6 billion hole in the public education budget, putting funding for California's schools at a historic low.
"My concern is for the future of our children as well as the future of California," said Sandra Thortenson, superintendent of the Whittier Union High School District. "Without proper funding to ensure college and career readiness for our students, they will be less competitive in the job market and university placement."
San Bernardino City Unified Superintendent Dale Marsden said the failure of Prop. 30 would mean an additional $20million cut in funding for the school system of more than 50,000 students. The loss would force San Bernardino to make cuts in music, art and sports programs, he said.
Deasy said the Los Angeles Unified School District would be forced to close 15 days early this school year and could forgo high school graduation ceremonies. The district of more than 980,000 students has already laid off 12,000 employees and made deep reductions to programs, Deasy said, adding that LAUSD has nothing left to cut.
"We can't say as superintendents what to vote for, but we can be clear about the consequences of a vote," he said.
Coupal said the push to educate voters on the consequences if Prop. 30 fails could end up backfiring.
"People look at these messages they're getting and they are distressed and even angered by it," he said. "Voters do not like being threatened."
Besides what Coupal considers scare tactics, the legal questions remain.
California election laws prohibit public officials from engaging in campaign activities while on agency time or using agency resources, such as office equipment, supplies and staff, to engage in advocacy-related activities.
However, Richard Hasen, a University of California, Irvine law professor, said the law isn't always clear.
"There is a line between information and advocacy and it's very tough to draw that line," he said.
Coupal said the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association plans to file more lawsuits alleging campaign law violations, but ultimately the hope is that the rules can be clarified.
The Associate Press contributed to this report.
Kelly.Puente@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2181, twitter.com/kellypuentept ___
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