Education Tops States' Ballot Issues
Voters in 12 states will decide ballot measures on Nov. 5 that, if passed, could alter the direction of education in some states for years to come.
Florida voters will consider whether to create "universal" prekindergarten, while Californians will determine the fate of a $13 billion bond proposal for school construction. Meanwhile, the future of bilingual education is on the line in Colorado and Massachusetts.
In all, 16 school-related ballot proposals await voters' action in the 12 states.
Just as significant as what's on the ballots, though, is what's missing. Officials with the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonpartisan organization in Washington, pointed out a notable lack of school choice questions. That is a striking departure from 2000, when voucher initiatives were defeated in California and Michigan.
"There have been highly contested voucher campaigns that have failed," said Kristina Wilfore, the executive director of the Washington-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which supports what it sees as progressive initiatives. "I suspect that we're going to see more proposals legislatively now, rather than putting it to an initiative," she added. ("Voucher Advocates Plan a Multistate Legal Battle," this issue. )
California educators are eyeing the bond measure, known as Proposition 47, which would help pay for the construction of new classrooms to relieve overcrowding. It would be the largest school construction bond in the state's history.
The money would also be used to repair older schools and upgrade facilities throughout the state's community college and university systems.
A number of education groups, including the California PTA and the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, back the measure.
But critics argue that the question is poorly written, and that many districts with serious overcrowding would have to wait as long as six years for relief. Some Californians also voice concern that the 737,000-student Los Angeles school system would have an advantage over other districts in the state when it comes to getting bond revenue because it already is so crowded.
A poll conducted by the Field Institute, a nonpartisan polling organization in San Francisco, suggested that a slim majority of 765 likely voters surveyed—54 percent—would vote for the bond. The poll's margin of error, however, was 5 percentage points.
The poll, which was released in August, also showed that only about one-third of likely voters were even aware of Proposition 47.
The same Field Poll found that California voters were also largely unaware that the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger is the lead sponsor of a ballot initiative to boost spending on before- and after-school programs. Only 22 percent of likely voters said they had heard of Proposition 49, billed as the After-School Education and Safety Program Act of 2002.
Supported by many education and criminal-justice groups, Proposition 49 would cost roughly $400 million a year. It would provide grants of up to $50,000 to elementary schools and up to $75,000 for middle and junior high schools. Schools would be required to match the grants.
Schools serving low-income students would receive first priority for additional grants of up to $200,000, and would also be able to use the money during school breaks.
Mr. Schwarzenegger's plan, which qualified as a citizens' initiative, does not call for a tax increase or a bond issue. Describing the plan as fiscally conservative, Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for the campaign, noted that funding wouldn't begin until the 2004- 05 school year, and that the program wouldn't be implemented unless the state's economy had recovered.
In fact, the initiative would require that program funding be put on hold until state spending had grown by at least $1.5 billion more than the highest level in any previous year.
Even so, some groups strongly oppose the measure, arguing it would hurt privately run programs.
The League of Women Voters of California adds that even if state revenues increase, that doesn't mean the state won't continue to face budget deficits. "This is no time to give one program a free ride through the budget process," according to the group's written position statement.
Across the country, voters in Florida will decide on a class- size-reduction measure that would limit class sizes to 18 pupils in grades K- 3, to 22 students in grades 4-8, and to 25 students in high school.
Proposed by state Sen. Kendrick B. Meek, a Democrat, Amendment 9 would be phased in by 2010 and could cost from $8 billion to $27 billion over that period, according to government estimates. A recent Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times poll found that more than 71 percent of 800 registered voters surveyed would vote for the measure. Support dropped to 49 percent, though, when they heard about the potential price tag. The margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.
The initiative is a significant issue in Florida's gubernatorial race.
Democratic candidate Bill McBride supports the measure. In addition, former Vice President Al Gore recently appeared at the opening of a Miami call center for Mr. Meek's Coalition to Reduce Class Size.
But Republican Gov. Jeb Bush argues that Mr. Meek's plan is too expensive, and he has offered his own alternative: a $2.8 billion program that would be used to build 12,000 new classrooms in more than 300 new schools over five years. The money would come from a bond issue, and the debt would be paid for with future revenues from a sales tax on cellular and business phones, cable television, and satellite television service.
Florida's voters will also decide whether the state should provide prekindergarten to all 4-year- olds. Proposed by Democratic Mayor Alex Penelas of Miami-Dade County, the new program would be phased in by the 2005-06 school year. The same newspaper poll found that 66 percent of likely voters surveyed were in favor of the prekindergarten measure.
Early-childhood education is an issue as well in Missouri. If Proposition A is approved there, early-childhood and other social programs would share the proceeds from a new 55-cents-per-pack cigarette tax to be enacted by the measure.
In Michigan, voters will decide on a tobacco- related measure that would reallocate $300 million from the state's settlement with tobacco companies to hospitals and other health-related programs.
Those funds would come from the Michigan Merit Awards scholarship program. The popular program, now financed with money from the tobacco settlement, gives students who meet or exceed state standards on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program one-time scholarships of up to $2,500.
Students have been told by the state treasury department not to expect the awards for college if the measure passes.
A recent poll of 400 likely voters conducted by The Boston Globe and WBZ-TV shows slightly declining support for a measure in Massachusetts that would replace bilingual instruction with English immersion—and allow teachers to be sued if they didn't obey the law.
Previous polls showed that roughly 70 percent of likely voters surveyed would get rid of bilingual classes for non-English- speaking students. That number has fallen to about 59 percent, with 31 percent opposed to the change, and 20 percent undecided. The margin of error was 5 percentage points. ("Voters Courted in Two States on Bilingual Ed.," Sept. 11, 2002.)
Lincoln Tamayo, the chairman of English for the Children in Massachusetts, which is leading the campaign for the proposal, attributed the drop to the opposition's emphasis on the lawsuit provision of the measure, known simply as Question 2. In the final weeks of the campaign, he added, he will try to convince voters that the elimination of bilingual education in California four years ago has been more successful than the opponents contend.
A similar initiative on the Colorado ballot has been well-received in early polls.
But John Britz, a consultant who is leading the opposition against Amendment 31, the Colorado proposal, said he was hopeful that the plan would be defeated.
"People really do understand that this issue is going to cause absolute chaos," he said. They "can't intellectually grasp," he added, the idea of taking a child who came to school knowing no English and mainstreaming him or her after nine months in an immersion classroom.
The initiatives in Colorado and Massachusetts were written by Ron K. Unz, the California businessman who launched the similar initiatives that passed in his state in 1998 and in Arizona two years later.
Meanwhile, in Nebraska, voters will decide a measure that would eliminate wording in the state constitution that says all official government proceedings, including classroom instruction, should be conducted only in English.
Supporters of the measure argue that the phrasing is outdated, and that it makes even foreign-language courses a violation of the state constitution. A similar measure failed two years ago.
Although this year's ballot proposals don't include questions on vouchers, private schools in Hawaii have a vested interest in a referendum that would give them access to special-purpose revenue bonds to expand or upgrade their facilities. Private schools would repay the debt, but would be able to do so at a far lower interest rate than if they obtained financing on their own.
Greg Knudsen, a spokesman for the Hawaii Department of Education, said department officials were not opposed to the measure because funding for public schools would not be affected.
But the Hawaii State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the NEA, views the issue differently.
"With all the things that need fixing in the public schools, if we're going to float a bond, let's float a bond for the public schools first," said Danielle Lum, a spokeswoman for the union.
Vol. 22, Issue 7, Pages 1,20-21