Oregon voters last week defeated a measure to shore up school spending, the second statewide victory claimed in recent months by national conservative activists who promise to stamp out state tax increases wherever the issue arises.
Groups such as Americans for Tax Reform and Citizens for a Sound Economy fought the Oregon plan, which would have affirmed state leaders’ decision to raise income and other taxes to increase spending on schools by $284.6 million and on other social services by $258 million. Last fall, those same groups fought a proposal to overhaul Alabama’s tax code, which went down to overwhelming defeat.
“We’ve had a series of tests, and every one of them tends to signal that tax-and-spend is not where we want to go,” said Grover G. Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading conservative strategist. He also cited a failed ballot initiative to pay for preschool education in Seattle and other local efforts to gain voter approval for tax hikes.
Mr. Norquist said his Washington-based group would put up vigorous campaigns in Ohio and Nevada next fall to throw out tax increases supported by Republican governors in those states. “It will be a personal repudiation of each of those governors,” he said.
Education advocates, however, said that the Oregon defeat and others like it show that although people support public schools, they won’t blindly agree to increase the amount of public dollars spent on them.
“I don’t think people have turned their backs on public education,” said Wendy D. Puriefoy, the president of the Public Education Network, or PEN, based in Washington. “Success [on such measures] is largely due to well-structured public engagement that explains what the money is for, where it is going to go, and why it is going to benefit the entire community.”
Oregon’s Measure 30—which would have funded health care, prisons, and police as well as schools—failed in part because the public didn’t understand exactly how increased income, cigarette, and corporate taxes would benefit schools, she contended.
Last year, she added, voters in Multnomah County, Ore., which includes Portland, approved a local income tax when they understood how the money would be used to aid schools.
Anti-tax leaders counter that Oregon voters, like those in Alabama, are more interested in increasing government efficiency than their tax bills. (“Alabama Voters Reject Gov. Riley’s Tax Plan,” Sept. 17, 2003).
“A lot of people think we can get more education value for our money,” said Dick Armey, a co-chairman of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a Washington group, and the former Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. “Just spending more money in education isn’t going to fix it.”
Down to Defeat
After the Oregon legislature passed a biennial budget last August that included tax increases, the Oregon chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy organized a petition drive to subject the new budget to approval by voters.
In the Feb. 3 vote, about 60 percent of Oregon voters cast ballots against Measure 30, essentially overruling the bipartisan budget that had been signed by Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski, a Democrat. The ballot measure listed the cuts that would be made if the budget was rejected, including the $284.6 million from K-12 schools.
The state chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy spent more than $500,000 to defeat the measure, according to reports filed with Oregon’s secretary of state on Jan. 22. A coalition of groups called “Yes on 30" spent about the same, according to its reports.
The ballot measure drew the support of a coalition of educators, business leaders, and advocates for other social services. In a statement supporting the budget filed with the secretary of state, Oregon Education Association leaders argued that rejecting the measure would mean shortening the school year and resorting to teacher layoffs.
“The schoolchildren of Oregon will get shortchanged ... again,” Kris Kain, the president of the National Education Association affiliate, wrote on behalf of other union leaders.
Oregon voters rejected that argument, siding instead with the anti-tax groups that said the revenue increases would cripple the state’s already lagging economy.
The rejection appears to contradict polls that find public support for school spending. In a poll conducted early last year for PEN and Education Week, 67 percent of the respondents said they were more concerned about cuts in services than paying more in taxes. More than half those surveyed said education should be protected from budget cuts. (“Aid to Schools Gets Support in Voter Poll,” Feb. 26, 2003.)
In a 2003 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, 25 percent of Americans surveyed said schools’ greatest challenge was lack of adequate funding—9 percentage points higher than a lack of discipline in the classroom, which respondents rated as the second-biggest problem.
Engaging the Public
That support doesn’t translate into votes, Mr. Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform said, because those surveyed don’t think about how much support for schools would cost them.
People tend to respond “Yeah, sure,” he said, whenever presented with an idea, whether it’s increasing school funding or sending astronauts to Mars. But they respond differently, he argued, when they see the economic consequences of those decisions.
“Polls tell you next to nothing when it comes to tax-and-spending policy,” Mr. Norquist said.
But Ms. Puriefoy of the Public Education Network said the message of the Measure 30 backers wasn’t specific or sustained enough to draw the backing it needed.
Sometimes, arguments for increased school funding can be drowned out if they are part of a package of services, as they were in Oregon, according to Arnold F. Fege, the director of public engagement for PEN, a group of local nonprofit organizations that support schools in their communities.
When voters are asked to approve specific items to improve schools, the measures are more likely to succeed than if they’re part of a general package of services, he said. For example, Florida voters approved a class-size-reduction program in 2000. Now state officials are trying to find a way to pay for it.
People are willing to support such “embraceable issues,” Mr. Fege said. “You have to break those huge omnibus issues down.”