Voters Deliver Verdict on Host Of State Ballot Questions

By Jessica Sandham — November 08, 2000 11 min read

Public education proved to be a clear financial winner Tuesday, as voters in several states approved ballot measures that would send more state funding to schools and voted down tax-cutting measures that opponents said would prove costly to education.

California and Michigan, meanwhile, rejected voucher proposals by sizable margins. And Arizona followed the lead of California in overwhelmingly approving a citizen initiative designed to largely dismantle bilingual education in the state in favor of programs emphasizing immersion in the English language. Although the issues addressed by the states’ finance-related ballot measures varied widely-from an education lottery in South Carolina to a sales-tax increase for school improvements in Arizona-voters appeared to express a common desire to share more of the nation’s economic prosperity with schools, said M. Dane Waters, the president of the Washington-based Initiative and Referendum Institute.

“It seems like it was a banner day for public education,” Mr. Waters said. “Voters have said they want those surpluses to go to education, and they want the money first and foremost to go to public schools.”

In two of the most closely watched education votes, the national movement for private school vouchers suffered twin blows on Election Day as voters in Michigan and California overwhelmingly rejected initiatives that would have authorized the use of state money to pay for private school tuition. Even as they defeated the voucher proposal, California voters narrowly approved a measure that makes it easier for school districts to pass facilities-bond issues by lowering the vote required from a two-thirds to a 55 percent majority. Voters passed Proposition 39, which was touted by supporters as a way to help schools relieve overcrowding, by 53 percent to 47 percent, according the secretary of state’s office.

On the voucher measures, the more unexpected result was in Michigan, where Proposal 1 would have given $3,300 vouchers for private and religious schools to parents whose children were enrolled in school districts that graduate fewer than two-thirds of their students. The proposal also would have allowed other districts to authorize vouchers through a vote by the local electorate or the school board, and it would have required the legislature to establish a teacher- testing system.

Proposal 1 was backed by the Roman Catholic Church in Michigan and largely bankrolled by Richard DeVos Jr., the founder of Amway Corp. Despite at least $12.9 million in spending by proponents, the initiative was defeated 69 percent to 31 percent. The measure had once led in statewide surveys and was considered one of the more politically viable voucher initiatives of the past decade. Republican Gov. John Engler had declined to back the measure, however, and teachers’ unions led a $6 million drive to defeat it. Exit polling by The Detroit News showed that the measure was opposed by all demographic groups, including Catholic and African-American voters, both of whom are seen as constituencies sympathetic to tuition vouchers.

In California, voters soundly rejected a broader voucher measure known as Proposition 38, which would have provided at least $4,000 per student for children anywhere in the state to attend private or religious schools. Students already in private schools would have been phased in to the proposed voucher program.

The measure was organized and backed to the tune of at least $23 million by Timothy C. Draper, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who had rebuffed suggestions from potential allies to try to pass a smaller voucher program limited to low-income children or those in failing public schools. It was opposed by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, as well as by the teachers’ unions and many black ministers around the state.

Opponents spent some $30 million fighting Proposition 38, just about matching the total amount spent by supporters. It was defeated 70.7 percent to 29.3 percent.

School choice proponents were also keeping a close eye on Washington state on Wednesday, where a ballot measure that would authorize charter schools was hanging by a thread, despite having financial support from Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen.

With 99 percent of the votes counted in the Evergreen State at 7 a.m. on Nov. 8, the charter school measure was trailing 51 percent to 49 percent, according to data posted on the secretary of state’s Web site.

If the measure were to pass, Washington would be the 37th state to pass a charter school law but the first to do so via a ballot initiative, according to the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

Bilingual Education on Ballot

Like a similar initiative on bilingual education passed by California voters two years ago, the initiative passed by Arizona voters Tuesday aims to replace programs in which students are taught subjects in their native languages while learning English with “sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year.”

Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financed both the California and Arizona initiatives to curtail bilingual education, called the 63 percent to 37 percent vote in favor of Proposition 203 “a sign of how strongly people in Arizona feel that children should be taught English as soon as they go to school.”

“It seems that at some point the national politicians should get the idea that getting rid of bilingual education everywhere in the country is something they should do,” Mr. Unz said.

Alejandra Sotomayor, a bilingual educator and spokeswoman for English Plus More, a group that opposed Proposition 203, countered that its passage shows that “racism is alive and well in Arizona.”

People who voted “yes” either were trying to send some kind of unwelcoming message to immigrants, such as “If you’re going to be here, the least you can do is speak English,” or they didn’t read the initiative well and understand it, she asserted.

Mr. Unz called accusations of racism “silly” and said that many of the people who voted in favor of the initiative are Hispanic immigrants themselves. Passage of the initiative, which essentially replaces all Arizona statutes concerning children with limited English proficiency, raises a number of issues that state officials will have to resolve in the coming weeks, said Laura Penny, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education. For example, the law doesn’t specify a date for implementation, she noted.

“Obviously, bilingual education in Arizona will be going on today,” Ms. Penny said Wednesday. “We’re not going to harm children by turning the system on its head overnight.”

At the same time they approved limits on bilingual education, Arizona voters passed Gov. Jane Dee Hull’s $450 million plan for a sales-tax increase to boost the state’s anemic education budget.

The Republican governor’s measure increases the state’s 5 percent sales tax by six-tenths of 1 percent, a rate that will remain in effect for 20 years. The first $70 million raised through the tax hike is earmarked for interest payments on $800 million in general-revenue bonds that the state plans to issue to raise money for school building improvements. Of the remainder, 15 percent is reserved for colleges and universities and 85 percent for K-12 education. Although the measure passed with 53 percent of the vote to 47 percent, observers say that some parts of the plan may still be vulnerable to changes by the legislature, which is controlled by Gov. Hull’s fellow Republicans.

“We know there will be increased learning from this proposal,” the governor told supporters Tuesday night. “We’re going to show what additional funding and additional accountability can accomplish.”

Anti-Spending Measures Failing

Meanwhile, with some of the votes still uncounted, Oregon education officials cheered tentative victories on several fronts of a multipronged battle waged against a series of initiatives they said would be harmful to schools. And with 81 percent of precincts counted Wednesday, 64 percent of voters came down against Measure 95, an initiative that would have required any teacher-pay increases beyond basic cost-of-living hikes to be determined by job performance and student success.

In addition, two tax-related Oregon measures that opponents said would cut significantly into the state’s ability to pay for education programs appeared to be headed for defeat. Again, with 81 percent of precincts counted, voters were rejecting Measure 91, which would have allowed state residents to deduct all federal income taxes from their state returns, with 54 percent voting no and 46 percent voting yes. In addition, a measure that would have limited state spending to 15 percent of Oregonians’ personal income was going down, with 56 percent opposed and 44 percent in favor.

And in a tentative victory for advocates for more school funding, 65 percent of voters had voted to pass Measure 1, an initiative supported by Gov. John A. Kitzhaber that would require the legislature to provide enough funding for schools to meet their education goals, or publish a report explaining why the funding fell short.

The results for Measure 9, an initiative that would prohibit public school instruction that would “encourage, sanction, or promote” homosexual or bisexual behavior were more tentative Wednesday morning, with preliminary results showing 51 percent of voters opposing the measure and 49 percent favoring it.

In Colorado, voters approved by 52 percent to 48 percent a measure that would pump an estimated $4.58 billion in new funding into schools over the coming decade. The measure, known as Amendment 23, requires the state to increase spending on schools by a rate of 1 percent plus the rate of inflation every year for the next 10 years, thereby skirting an initiative approved by voters in 1992 that set limits on state spending.

Because the funding for the increase comes from the state’s budget surplus- money that is currently returned to state residents through annual tax refunds- opponents of Amendment 23 say it effectively amounts to a tax increase. “If we had another week of this election, this measure would not have passed,” said Jon Caldera, the president of a conservative think tank in Golden, Colo., who led the opposition to the measure.

But Ellen Marshall, the campaign coordinator for the coalition of education groups supporting the amendment, said that the vote reflects state residents’ frustration with school budgets that fall short of meeting students’ needs. “We’ve made a lot of investments in a lot of other areas, and it was time to get back on track with education,” Ms. Marshall said.

Lottery Gets the Nod

In South Carolina, voters chose to allow a state lottery that would pay for substantial college scholarships and free graduate-level college courses for public school teachers. Fifty-four percent of voters sided with Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges’ proposal for an education lottery, modeled on neighboring Georgia’s. In supporting a lottery, South Carolinians rejected arguments by a grassroots coalition of anti-lottery forces that used church groups and bus tours to fight what they see as state-supported gambling. Signs posted in suburban lawns said: “Education? Yes! Lottery? No!”

Two other states had lottery initiatives on their ballots. Virginians voted to require that income from the state’s existing lottery be spent on nothing but education. And citizens in Arkansas voted down a little-publicized plan to create a lottery for college scholarships and to open casinos in six rural counties.

Washington state voters gave what supporters saw as a bold stamp of approval to their public schools by overwhelmingly approving two voter initiatives to direct state money into local school programs and teacher salaries.

Dominating the victory lists was Initiative 728, which received 72 percent of the vote. I-728 would direct money from state budget surpluses back to localities, where school boards could use it to reduce class sizes, add learning opportunities outside the traditional school day, and provide for other specified purposes.

Washington voters also approved Initiative 732 to guarantee teachers and other school employees annual cost-of-living increases, with 60 percent of the vote. Also on Nov. 7, Oklahoma voters approved a referendum amending the state constitution to allow school boards to let voters choose whether certain school millages-specifically, the emergency levy, the local-support levy, and the building-fund levy-should have to face an annual vote.

Currently, voters must approve levies every year. With passage of State Question 690, and if school boards take advantage of the change, voters will be able to decide, when they vote for a levy, whether to allow it to continue from year to year.

Under State Question 690, which was approved with 55 percent of the vote, the levies would be put up for a new election if a petition was signed by 10 percent of the registered voters or if the board of education recommended a return to an annual vote.

But Sooner State voters rejected a referendum to allow more liberal spending of the state’s school land trust, which benefits Oklahoma’s public schools and certain state universities. Currently, only the annual income earned by the fund can be spent. The measure that was put to a vote, State Question 684, a constitutional amendment, would have let the trustees dip into the principal of the fund to aid public schools and universities.

Jessica L. Sandham compiled this report with contributions from Darcia Harris Bowman, Alan Richard, Andrew Trotter, Mark Walsh, and Mary Ann Zehr.