Schools to See Big Windfalls From State Ballot Measures
Despite the nation's rocky economy and a national tilt toward conservative candidates, voters in several states gave the go-ahead for generous new education spending in last week's elections.
Voters approved funding for school construction and after-school programs in California, and pricey measures to lower class sizes and offer free preschool in Florida.
Tennessee voters lifted a ban on lotteries, while Michigan rejected a proposal that would have ended a popular college-scholarship program.
"A lot of voters seem to have a soft spot for education measures," said M. Dane Waters, the president of the Washington-based Initiative and Referendum Institute.
He noted that while voters might be willing to delay road improvements or other spending projects, "when it comes to education, they think, 'I've got one chance. If there's something I can do to help my kid in school, I'm going to do it.'"
Meanwhile, the results were mixed for two closely watched ballot measures that targeted bilingual education. While voters in Colorado defeated an effort to curb such classes there, Massachusetts voters easily passed a similar proposal. ("Colo. Extends Bilingual Ed., But Mass. Voters Reject It," this issue.)
Florida's Nov. 5 results show how support for hefty education spending defied other political trends.
Gov. Jeb Bush had campaigned against the state's class-size- reduction measure, warning of its cost. But even as the Republican was easily winning a second term, with 56 percent of the vote, the proposal was garnering the approval of 53 percent of the voters.
Called Proposition 9, it will limit class sizes to 18 pupils in kindergarten through grade 3, to 22 students in grades 4-8, and to 25 students in high school. It must be phased in by 2010.
Now, Gov. Bush and the GOP-controlled legislature will be responsible for implementing the measure.
"I think it's important for everyone to understand that the campaign is over," Democratic state Sen. Kendrick Meek, who sponsored the initiative, said last week. "I don't think the legislature is going to thumb its nose at the people of the state of Florida. I don't think the local school districts are going to turn their back and say we're not going to do it."
Mr. Meek, who won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, said he now plans to bring educators, parents, and legislators together to move the process forward.
By next school year, districts will be required to cut class sizes by at least two students, which could require the use of portable classrooms to accommodate new classes.
While Mr. Meek stopped short of saying the initiative will require a tax increase, he said it will cost far less than the $27 billion opponents predicted—more like $8 billion to $12 billion between now and 2010.
"It's all about priorities here," he said. "There is no secret that we have to raise the education commitment in this state."
In an unguarded moment, Gov. Bush was quoted as saying prior to the election that he had thought of "devious ways" to avoid implementing the new mandate.
But Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said the public should give him another chance.
"My impression is that governors want to leave with an image of doing something instead of not doing something," she said. "The public is going to hold him accountable for this."
The governor told local reporters last week that he doesn't know how the state will pay for the reduction measure, but he added that he's ready to hear input from class- size cap supporters.
Following the passage of another measure, the governor must name 14 of the 17 members of a new governing board for higher education—a body similar to the one he and the legislature abolished last year as part of an effort to create a "seamless" preschool-through-college system. ("Florida Breaking Down Walls Between K- 12, Higher Ed.," Feb. 13, 2002.)
"There is the assumption that he will move players around that are already in place," Alice Skelton, the campaign manager for the Proposition 11 initiative on higher education governance, said about the new appointments.
The results in the Sunshine State may demonstrate more than voters' interest in schools, some say.
According to Mr. Dane, the outcomes show how political lines are blurring: Even though voters returned Mr. Bush to the governor's mansion, they approved measures he didn't support.
"These voters may feel some loyalty to a specific party, but when it comes to ballot measures, they know that their vote will have an almost instantaneous impact on their daily lives," he said, "and so are far less likely to vote strictly on party conviction."
Pre-K in Florida
Gov. Bush did not oppose Proposition 8, the measure to make prekindergarten universally available to 4-year-olds, but now he and the legislature will have to find a way to pay for the program.
With the passage of Proposition 8, Florida became the first state in which a new statewide preschool initiative has been approved by voters instead of through the legislative process.
"This was a good decision by Floridians," said Mayor Alex Penelas of Miami-Dade County, who led the drive to get the initiative on the ballot. "This is a good investment."
Unlike Proposition 10, a tobacco tax for early-childhood programs that passed in California in 1998, Florida's Amendment 8 does not specify how the new pre-K services will be financed. It just mandates that lawmakers provide the money.
"Everyone has agreed that with growth in the state budget alone, you can afford to pay for this," Mr. Penelas said.
As in neighboring Georgia—the first state to offer universal preschool—Florida will open the program to all children, regardless of their parents' income.
"By 2005, it has to be every 4-year-old," the mayor said. "It will be like every other grade."
In California, crowded and rundown schools will get some relief—and soon—from the $13.05 billion bond issue voters approved last week.
According to the state's Office of Public School Construction, school districts in which building projects were approved by the state but never financed will begin receiving funding from bond proceeds in the next two months.
If those funds are managed effectively, the results could give a big boost to another statewide school bond issue for $12 billion slated for the November 2004 ballot, said Scott MacDonald, a spokesman for last week's winning "Yes on 47" campaign.
In spite of a state budget deficit of more than $20 billion in a budget of $99 billion, almost 60 percent of the voters approved the measure, which Mr. MacDonald said could also create 250,000 new jobs.
"That's a huge boon at the time we need it," he said.
Future growth in the economy also would mean that another successful measure, Proposition 49, which approved new after-school services, will likely be implemented.
Spearheaded by the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom many political analysts are describing as a potential gubernatorial candidate, the initiative is expected to cost up to $550 million annually. But it won't kick in unless state spending grows by at least $1.5 billion more than the highest level in any previous year.
The League of Women Voters of California opposed the measure, saying that it would "add to future budget crises." But proponents called it a fiscally sound plan.
"When our economy recovers, under Proposition 49, every public elementary and middle school in California will be able to provide a safe haven for our most vulnerable citizens," Mr. Schwarzenegger said following the victory.
Now that voters in Tennessee have given the green light to a lottery, it is up to legislators there to work out the details.
State Sen. Steve Cohen, the Democrat from Memphis who pushed for the referendum, has already prepared legislation to establish a lottery, which, as in Georgia, would be used to pay for college scholarships.
But unlike Georgia's HOPE Scholarship program, which provides tuition aid for students based strictly on their grades, Mr. Cohen's plan would direct more assistance toward needy students.
If approved by the legislature, a lottery could generate as much as $300 million annually. Any additional proceeds—which could be as high as $100 million a year, Mr. Cohen said—would be used for early-childhood education, after-school care, and K-12 school construction.
During the campaign, education associations were largely silent on the lottery proposal, which was strongly opposed by religious groups throughout the state.
But now that it appears to be closer to reality, "that's when the fight starts over how [the money is] going to be spent," said A.L. Hayes, a spokesman for the Tennessee Education Association.
Michael Gilstrap, the president of the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance—the leading anti-lottery organization—conceded to reporters that the voters had sent a "clear message" by approving Constitutional Amendment 1 with a 58 percent majority.
But Stephen Smith, the director of government relations for the Tennessee School Boards Association, said the battle might not be over yet. "Opponents could still lobby the legislature not to enact it," he said of the lottery measure.
In Michigan, college scholarships were also on the line.
The defeat of Proposal 4, however, means that high school students who meet or exceed state standards on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program will still be eligible to receive one-time scholarships of $2,500 each. The measure, if it had been approved, would have redirected $300 million from the state's tobacco settlement—money used to pay for the scholarships—toward hospitals and other health-related programs.
"I think [students] are relieved," said Jim Ballard, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. "Students at the high school level became very aroused when they learned what this really meant. We worked very hard to get them informed."
A school construction measure passed in Hawaii, but this one will benefit private schools.
Sixty-percent of voters said yes to Question 2, which will give private schools access to special-purpose revenue bonds to renovate their facilities.
Private Schools Pleased
The schools will repay the debt, but will be able to do so at a much lower rate than if they obtained financing on their own.
"Our campuses our aging," said Robert Witt, the executive director of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools. Current facilities, he said, do not meet students' 21st-century learning needs.
Mr. Witt said that the plan is to bring together six to eight schools to craft a "pooled bond proposal" for the legislature, which will begin its next session in January.
While he's moving quickly to inform private school leaders of the new opportunity, Mr. Witt admits he was somewhat unprepared for the victory.
"I was surprised," he said. "We have deliberately been careful not to count our chickens."
Vol. 22, Issue 11, Pages 1,22-23, 25