Published Online: October 19, 2010
Published in Print: October 20, 2010, as Ballot Measures Reflect K-12 Funding Jitters

Ballot Measures Reflect States' Shaky Economies

In an election year dominated by the pitched battle for Congress and major governors’ races, state ballot measures involving education are largely tied to a similar theme: the burden of funding K-12 programs when state finances are shaky.

“It’s all funding,” said Jennie Drage Bowser, a senior fellow in the Legislative Management Program at the National Conference of State Legislatures, in Denver.

In some cases, initiatives, constitutional amendments, and other ballot measures seek to tap new sources of funding for education. For instance, an initiative in Washington state would raise taxes on the wealthiest individuals, lower other taxes, and divert any new revenue to schools and health programs.

More indirectly, California is considering a measure to roll back a package of recently enacted corporate tax breaks. Proponents, including the state’s largest teachers’ union, say the resulting revenue could help stave off potentially damaging cuts to education.

Interactive Map

Maine and Oregon voters will weigh plans to create new casinos that would direct part of their proceeds to K-12 education.

But in other states, voters are deciding whether to take dollars currently targeted for education programs and redirect them to other priorities—or to tax relief.

An Arizona initiative seeks to divert funding from early-childhood health and education programs to the state’s general fund.

In Colorado, anti-tax advocates are seeking to significantly restrict state and local governments’ ability to raise revenue through a trio of initiatives opposed by nearly every major education organization in the state.

Class-Size Redux

In Florida, voters are considering an initiative that would loosen a 2002 constitutional amendment dealing with class-size reduction. The new initiative, which was put on the ballot by state lawmakers and is backed by the Florida School Boards Association and the Florida Association of School Administrators, would raise the current law’s class-size caps, and give schools more flexibility in implementing the law.

Opponents, including the state’s teachers’ union, argue it’s just a way to cut funding for schools.

Under current law, classes can’t be larger than 18 pupils in prekindergarten through grade 3, 22 students in grades 4 through 8, and 25 students in high school. The ballot provision would raise the state’s class-size limits by three in K-3 and by five students in the higher grades.

The amendment also would include a change aimed at giving principals more control over how the reductions are implemented.

Under the amendment, the class size numbers would be transformed into requirements for the average class size in a particular school, instead of hard caps for each individual class. The state used that method during the amendment’s implementation period, which ended this school year.

Initiatives to Watch

Alaska

BONDING PROPOSITION B Asks voters whether the state can issue bonds of up to $397.2 million to design and construct libraries, education, and educational research facilities.

Arizona

PROPOSITION 302 Would redirect money from tobacco taxes from a fund for early-childhood health and education to the state’s general fund, where it would be targeted to health and human-services programs for children.
PROPOSITION 107 Would amend the state’s constitution to ban affirmative action programs in a variety of settings, including public education.

California

PROPOSITION 24 Would close a number of recently enacted tax breaks for corporations. It’s backed the state’s teachers’ unions, which say it would help ameliorate cuts to public schools.
PROPOSITION 25 Would lower the legislative threshold for passing state budgets from a two-thirds vote to a majority. Teachers’ unions support the proposition, arguing that the high bar for passing spending plans produces gridlock.

Colorado

AMENDMENT 60 Would reduce the amount of property-taxes paid by individuals and businesses to school districts, counties, special districts, cities, and towns. It includes a provision that would cut local property-tax rates for public schools’ operating expenses in half over 10 years and replace the money with state funding.
AMENDMENT 61 Would place new restrictions on government borrowing. It would prohibit all new state government borrowing after 2010; bar new local government borrowing after 2010, unless approved by voters; limit the amount and length of time of local government borrowing; and require that tax rates be reduced after the borrowed money is fully repaid.
PROPOSITION 101 Would reduce or eliminate a variety of taxes and fees on income, vehicles, and telecommunications. Opponents say this would lead to less funding for government services, including education.

Florida

AMENDMENT 8 Would tweak a current constitutional amendment that limits the maximum number of students assigned to each teacher in public school classrooms in the following grade groupings: for prekindergarten through grade 3, 18 students; for grades 4 through 8, 22 students; and for grades 9 through 12, 25 students. Instead, the current limits on the maximum number of students assigned to each teacher in public school classrooms would become limits on the average class size in a given public school. The amendment also raises the number of students that can be assigned per teacher in each grade.

Maine

QUESTION 1 Would create a casino with table games and slot machines. One-quarter of the revenue from slot machines and one-tenth of the revenue from table games would be directed to K-12 schools.

New Mexico

BOND QUESTION B Asks voters whether the state can issue $7.1 million in bonds to finance academic, public school, tribal, and public library buildings.

Oregon

MEASURE 75 Would authorize a new resort casino and create the Oregon Job Growth, Education and Communities Fund. Each month, 25 percent of the casino’s revenues would be deposited in that fund, and every year, the fund would give 50 percent of its revenues to all public school districts for classroom instruction, including teacher and staff salaries, textbooks, classroom technology, and other supplies.

Oklahoma

QUESTION 744 Would require the state to raise per-pupil spending up to the average of surrounding states, including Missouri, Texas, Kansas, Arkansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. If the average amount spent by those surrounding states declines, Oklahoma would have to spend the amount it spent the year before.
QUESTION 754 Would put language in the state’s constitution stating that the legislature is not required to spend a certain amount of money on any one government service or program, and that lawmakers aren’t required to make spending decisions based on other states’ appropriations.

Washington

INITIATIVE 1098 Would tax incomes above $200,000 (individuals) and $400,000 (joint-filers) to help reduce other state taxes. Any increased revenues would be directed to education and health.
REFERENDUM BILL 52 Would authorize up to $505 million in bonds to finance construction and repair projects increasing energy efficiency in public schools and higher education buildings.

The hard caps have created headaches for principals, said Larry Wood, the managing director for the Florida Association of School Administrators in Tallahassee. Schools have had to take drastic measures, such as busing students to other schools, simply because one or two additional children enrolled, he said.

But the initiative’s opponents—including the state’s teachers’ union—say its purpose is to shift funding from K-12 schools to other priorities. The amendment could save $350 million to $1 billion annually, according to Florida TaxWatch, a research and advocacy organization.

“It’s a money issue,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, a 140,000-member union that is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “In Florida, we’ve traditionally been reticent to properly fund K-12 education.”

The Florida Department of Education said the amendment doesn’t include language related to spending.

The flexibility that principals are seeking could be achieved through legislative action, Mr. Pudlow said. But Mr. Wood said lawmakers don’t see it that way. He rejected the argument that saving dollars is the core motivation behind the initiative. “I think class-size reduction is a great thing. ... The issue is [about] tying local managers’ hands,” he said.

Oklahoma voters, meanwhile, face a pair of dueling initiatives that could affect education funding.

One would require the state’s per-pupil spending to match the average of other states in the region, including Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, and Texas.

Watching the Neighbors

“Right now, Oklahoma’s kids don’t have the same opportunity as kids in neighboring states,” said Walter Robinson, a spokesman for the Yes on 744 Coalition, which is made up of more than 20 organizations, including the Oklahoma Education Association and some Native American tribes.

The state ranks 49th nationally in per-pupil expenditures, and 48th in teacher pay, Mr. Robinson said.

But a competing initiative seeks to nullify the school spending provision by explicitly stating that lawmakers can’t be required to spend a certain amount of money on a particular program, or to make spending decisions based on actions in other states.

State Rep. Leslie Osborn, a Republican, introduced that second proposal, and warns that the school spending initiative would likely lead to cuts in other vital services, such as public safety. “Education has to be a priority,” Rep. Osborn said. “But it’s not the only priority.”

If both measures pass, the amendment with the most votes will become law, Rep. Osborn said.

Colorado voters, meanwhile, will consider a trio of measures aimed at dramatically reducing the state’s ability to collect revenue to finance a variety of services, including education.

These ballot initiatives, backed by anti-tax advocates, “are draconian,” said Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association. “They are truly a set of proposals designed to send Colorado back to the 19th century,” she said.

One measure would severely restrict local governments’ ability to collect property taxes. School districts would lose an estimated $337 million in property-tax revenue during the first year, and $1.5 billion by the end of the 10-year implementation period, according to an analysis conducted for the Colorado General Assembly. The provision would require the state to make up the difference. But opponents say it doesn’t specify a funding mechanism.

Another measure would severely restrict state and local borrowing. The third would reduce or eliminate a variety of taxes and fees, squeezing revenue streams for education and other services.

The measures are supported by the Colorado Union of Taxpayers. On its website, the group says the initiatives “are a direct reaction to poor treatment of taxpayers. This reaction is fully justified and will ultimately help create many new jobs in Colorado, while preserving local governments’ ability to provide police and fire protection and to educate our children.”

Assault on Tax Breaks

In cash-strapped California, the state’s largest teachers’ union helped get an initiative before voters that would roll back recently enacted corporate tax breaks.

The initiative could help stave off future reductions in education spending, said Dina Martin, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association, a 325,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association.

The proposition “ends nearly $2 billion in special corporate tax loopholes,” Ms. Martin said. “By granting these loopholes, we’re taking money away from schools.”

But opponents say the measure would further stifle the state’s stuttering economy.

“It’s fundamentally a jobs-killer,” said Nick DeLuca, a spokesman for the No on 24 Campaign. “Healthy public services depend on a healthy economy.”

In Arizona, voters will consider an initiative that would shift tobacco revenue now directed for early- childhood education and health services to the state’s general fund.

Arizona lawmakers are already counting on the money. They have built $385 million into this year’s budget, assuming that the amendment would pass. Lawmakers would have to rework the spending plan if the initiative fails.

But passage would mean the immediate end of the early-childhood programs financed by the tax, said Rhian Allvin, the executive director of First Things First, a governmental organization charged with distributing the funds.

The amendment calls for the legislature to direct the funding to health programs, but “I have a hard time believing that they would do the kind of work First Things First is doing,” Ms. Allvin said.

Vol. 30, Issue 08, Pages 1,17

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