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Published in Print: October 11, 2006, as Voters to Decide How States Fund Education

Voters to Decide How States Fund Education

Measures seek to increase spending for K-12 schools.

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Voters in some states will be asked to approve more funding for education when they go to the polls next month, and others will decide ballot measures that could have a significant impact on how states pay for education.

California, Idaho, Michigan, and Ohio are among the states with measures that would increase or seek to protect school spending.

In California, Proposition 1D—part of the “strategic growth plan” put forward by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who is seeking re-election—would authorize more than $10.4 billion in bonds for construction projects in K-12 and higher education. The funds would be used to relieve overcrowding, build charter schools, improve earthquake safety at schools, and pay for more vocational education facilities.

The school bond vote is part of a larger infrastructure proposal, which would authorize the state to borrow more than $42 billion. In an analysis of state ballot measures, John G. Matsusaka, the president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, said that the public’s “appetite for government spending is not unlimited, but the fate of these measures will give a barometer on whether big government is coming back.”

The results of early opinion polling on the issue, released by the San Francisco-based Field Research Corp. in July, showed that among a sample of 384 likely voters, the yes votes were leading by 48 percent to 37 percent. The rest were undecided. The margin of error for the poll was 5 percentage points.

A separate citizens’ initiative on California’s Nov. 7 ballot, Proposition 88, would establish a new $50 real estate tax specifically to raise money for class-size reduction, instructional materials, and other education-related services. Opponents of the measure, including the state PTA, argue that it would likely create new levels of bureaucracy and open the door to new property taxes to pay for ballot propositions.

Meanwhile, in Idaho, voters will decide on a 1-cent sales-tax increase, which would push the state sales tax up to 6 percent. If approved, the new sales-tax revenue would help establish the Idaho Local Public Investment Fund, which would be used for classroom materials and supplies, teacher recruitment, and reducing class sizes.

In Michigan, voters will decide on a measure that seeks to protect state K-12 and higher education funding by setting minimum funding levels. Proposal 5, the Educational Funding Guarantee, would increase current funding by approximately $565 million and require the state to provide annual funding increases equal to the rate of inflation.

And in Ohio, the proposed Ohio Learn and Earn amendment to the state constitution would permit up to 31,500 slot machines at seven horseracing tracks and two Cleveland non-track locations. Thirty percent of the funds would go to the state board of regents for college scholarships and grants to eligible students, as well as administration of the program.

The fact that several measures to increase funding for education are on state ballots shows that even as states remain relatively conservative about new spending, voters often approve tax increases if they perceive that those measures will improve schools, said Kristina Wilfore, the executive director of the Washington-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which fights against politically conservative ballot initiatives.

“We know from previous elections that education is always at the top of the list,” she said. “Education strikes home more than any other function that government can provide.”

‘65 Percent Solution’

The mostly conservative supporters of the “65 percent solution,” which seeks to make sure that proportion or more of education spending goes to the classroom, have pushed in several states to get such proposals on the 2006 ballot. So far, though, such a measure has qualified for a vote in only one state, Colorado.

A key aim is to spend less on the “plethora of school district superintendents and other bureaucratic staffing,” according to a memo from the Washington-based group First Class Education, which promotes the idea. Chaired by Patrick M. Byrne, the president of the Overstock.com shopping Web site, the organization wants to change school funding laws in all 50 states to establish the 65 percent minimum for spending on instruction. ("Group’s ‘65 Percent Solution’ Gains Traction, GOP Friends," Oct. 12, 2005.)

In Colorado, as it turns out, two competing versions of the 65 percent solution will be on the ballot—one crafted by the First Class Education affiliate in the state, and the other sponsored by several members of the legislature.

Ms. Wilfore predicted that with two similar measures on the ballot, “voters will be fairly confused. And being confused usually means voting no.”

In at least two states, Maine and Oregon, voters will decide whether to pass a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. A formula-driven cap on state and local spending, such measures are favored by groups that want to limit tax increases.

The impact of a TABOR on education spending is usually one of the top arguments against it. Just last fall, voters in Colorado suspended such a measure approved in 1992, apparently convinced that K-12 schools and the state university system needed the additional money.

A proposed TABOR is also on the ballot in Nebraska, but an opposition group, called Not in Nebraska —which includes several education groups—has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to get it removed.

Preschool Proposal

California voters rejected a tax on wealthy residents to pay for new universal pre-K plan during the June primary election; now, supporters of an early-childhood-development initiative in Arizona are hoping they will be more successful.

Arizona voters will be asked to decide whether smokers should be taxed an additional 80 cents per pack to pay for health screenings, child-development services, preschool, and other programs for preschool-age children.

Sponsored by Eddie and Nadine Basha, the owners of a grocery store chain, the Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health Initiative—also known as First Things First—would raise the total tax on cigarettes to $1.98 per pack. The proceeds, roughly $150 million a year, would be spent on local and regional services for preschool-age children. Information and training on child development would be made available to Arizona parents, and grants would be distributed to existing private and faith-based providers to improve programs.

Under the initiative, a nine-member Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health Board, appointed by the governor, would administer the program.

Early-childhood-education advocates outside the state note that even in a generally conservative state such as Arizona, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who is up for re-election, has pushed for full-day kindergarten, and that passage of the First Things First initiative might be the first step toward achieving that goal. “It seems to have a lot of broad-based support,” said Libby Doggett, the executive director of Pre-K Now, an advocacy group in Washington. “Smart business people are looking at this.”

However, opponents of the measure say it would duplicate existing services for children in the state, such as health screenings for newborns and Early Head Start, which are federally funded.

“This plan will take $150 million from the state’s general fund for more undefined programs, for undefined needs, to undefined ends,” said Darcy Olsen, the president of the Goldwater Institute, a free market-oriented think tank in Phoenix.

Illegal Immigrants

Another question on Arizona’s crowded ballot of 19 measures would deny certain state services to illegal immigrants, such as taking classes offered by the Arizona Department of Education’s adult education division.

“How can we expect anyone to follow immigration law if Arizona keeps giving away the benefits of citizenship and legal migration to those who ignore our laws?,” state Sen. Dean Martin, the sponsor of the initiative, wrote for a voters’ guide. The Republican is pushing for Proposition 300 as a way to overturn Gov. Napolitano’s veto of a similar bill last year.

But members of the legislature’s Latino caucus call the proposal “mean-spirited.”

PHOTO: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, right, with Dick Ackerman, a Republican state senator, urges passage of ballot Propositions 1A-1E, designed to provide money for the improvement of the state's aging infrastructure, at a news conference Oct. 3, 2006. One measure includes $10.4 billion for school construction.
—Reed Saxon/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 07, Pages 20,24

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