Status Quo Prevails On State Ballots
They had their chance. But voters in several states soundly rejected ballot measures last week that would have radically changed how their schools are governed or financed.
Coloradans delivered a major setback to school choice forces with their resounding defeat of proposed tax credits for private school tuition. In California, voters flunked the idea of a powerful new inspector general for education and greater parental control over schools. And South Dakotans voted overwhelmingly against a ban on using property taxes to pay for education.
Instead, voters generously supported schools in a way that many education groups hope will encourage similar action at the national level. The biggest such gesture came in California, where voters passed the nation's largest-ever school bond, a $9.2 billion package, by 62 percent to 38 percent, according to unofficial results.
"We just came out of a Congress deadlocked on school modernization funding, and now California passes this bond," said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the director of government relations for the 2.4 million-member National Education Association. "I'm hoping that Republicans and Democrats get the message that this should become a federal partnership in the upcoming Congress."
But the fate of a California proposal to add a 50-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes to pay for early-childhood programs remained undecided last week. The outcome of the tight vote hinged on 600,000 outstanding absentee ballots.
In other nods of support to schools, Arkansas and Nebraska voters killed plans that would have made it harder to raise school taxes.
"People are mandating the right to vote yes or no on taxes, but [are] hesitant to vote in tax caps that tie the hands of legislators on education," said Dane Waters, the president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.
Colorado's vote on Amendment 17 may have been the most widely watched school ballot initiative in last week's midterm elections.
The measure–which was rejected on a 59 percent to 41 percent vote–sought to give parents up to $2,500 annually per child in state income-tax credits for school costs, including private school tuition. It was the lone school choice measure in the 16 states with ballot measures on Nov. 3. ("Proposed Tax Credit Drawing Support in Colo.," Oct. 21, 1998.)
Since 1992, the backers of Amendment 17 have twice seen voucher measures die--once at the polls and once when a court battle kept it from getting on the ballot. This year's proposal was different. It would have provided parents a financial break for sending their children to the private and public schools of their choice, without the emotion-laden use of vouchers.
But that did not matter to voters, or to the teachers' unions and other school groups that spent more than $1 million–about the same as Amendment 17 supporters–to upend the plan.
"People saw that it was going to take money out of public education, and people aren't ready for that," said Pat Smart, the field organizer for Coloradans for Public Schools, a coalition that opposed the measure.
The National Education Association gave $635,000 to the anti-Amendment 17 cause, also hoping to dissuade similar efforts elsewhere. Ms. Smart summed up her feelings: "I hope this takes the winds out of all their sails."
The defeat may indeed weaken other ballot measures, said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a national school choice advocacy organization in Washington.
"I don't think it's easy to pass an initiative, especially when it's this complex," she added. Ms. Allen said interest in choice options is high, but added: "That kind of proposal is better left to the legislative process."
A Michigan parent-advocacy group that supports school choice is mounting a similar effort for 2000.
"If Amendment 17 had passed, it would have been a boost for us," said Paul N. DeWeese, the founder of the Teach Michigan Education Fund and a newly elected Republican state representative.
The loss may have left Amendment 17 backers more isolated than ever. "When voters have spoken this decisively, it means that, for the short and medium term, we shouldn't reintroduce the concept," Colorado Gov.-elect Bill Owens, a Republican, told The Denver Post last week.
In California, voters gave an emphatic nod to status quo governance of schools when 63 percent of the electorate rejected a sweeping reform measure, while only 37 percent voted for it.
Proposition 8, which was sponsored by outgoing Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, had wide support in opinion polls over the summer, mostly because it promised to permanently fund the state's popular K-3 class-size-reduction program.
But focus groups convened by opponents of the measure revealed two areas that troubled potential voters.
They balked at the proposed governor-appointed inspector general of schools–a position widely described as an "education czar"–and at the post's annual budget of up to $20 million.
Also prickly was the provision that would have given parent-led site councils in the state's 8,000 schools power to override local school boards on curriculum and spending matters.
Those concerns were then spelled out in a last-minute, $6 million advertising and get-out-the-vote effort, largely paid for by the California Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the NEA.
"People are not willing to just throw a bomb into schools and let it explode and see what happens," said Dennis Meyers, the assistant executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. "They're smarter than that."
But Golden State voters were in a ''yes'' mood on Proposition 1-A, the school facility bond that will provide $6.7 billion for K-12 school facilities and $2.5 billion for higher education over four years.
Last week, details were being worked out on how to administer the windfall, which includes $2.9 billion for new schools, $2.1 billion for modernization, $1 billion for schools unable to raise matching funds, and $700 million for efforts to reduce class sizes.
On another ballot front, it remained unclear last week whether an unusual coalition of liberal and conservative activists, led by filmmaker Rob Reiner, had propelled California's Proposition 10 to victory.
Late last week, the plan to raise $700 million a year for early-childhood welfare and education programs held a razor-slim lead of 14,000 votes out of more than 7 million cast.
With 600,000 absentee ballots still to be counted, neither side was declaring victory last week. Proposition 10 supporters spent about $9 million to pass the measure, compared with about $40 million raised by the tobacco industry to defeat it.
Voters dealt with a host of other ballot issues elsewhere across the country. For instance, teachers' unions boasted of victory in Oregon, where voters apparently rejected Measure 59, an initiative that would have hampered the organizations' ability to raise political funds from their members.
The "paycheck protection" measure would have barred public employers--including public schools--from deducting union fees from workers' paychecks for political activities. Many public-employee unions depend on the deductions to fund their political action committees.
According to unofficial results, Measure 59 failed when 53 percent of the voters rejected it and 47 percent supported it, roughly the same tallies by which California voters earlier this year rejected a similar paycheck-protection initiative.
In Washington state, voters by 58 percent to 42 percent passed Initiative 200, which bans race and gender preferences in public-college admissions and government employment. Californians passed a similar measure in 1996.
Tax issues were also on voters' minds. The most dramatic illustration came in South Dakota, where Amendment A sought to prohibit the use of property taxes for financing public schools. The measure died on a 78 percent to 22 percent vote against it.
Arkansas voters also defeated Amendment 2, which would have required three-fifths approval by each legislative chamber to raise taxes. A court struck down an earlier initiative proposal, which would have eliminated property taxes entirely. And Nebraskans killed Initiative 413, which would have restricted the legislature's ability to raise taxes. Montana residents, however, passed Constitutional Initiative 75, which requires local voters to approve new taxes.
Staff Writer Jeff Archer contributed to this story.
Vol. 18, Issue 11, Pages 1,17,19