State Voters OK More Spending For Education
Put money in schools rather than taxpayers' pockets.
Analysts said that was the message sent by voters in several states Nov. 7 as they passed most of the initiatives and referendums designed to send more money to schools, and voted down tax-cutting measures that opponents said would prove costly to education.
Though 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—the outcomes of those races appeared to validate the broader emphasis politicians throughout the country placed on education this year, said Ted Sanders, the president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
"The public has said that we're willing to spend more to get more," Mr. Sanders said. "We're satisfied that working on accountability, improving teacher quality, getting the financing right ... that this agenda makes sense. And people have voted in various ways in support of it."
In 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 promoted as a way to help schools relieve overcrowding, by 53 percent to 47 percent, according to the secretary of state's office.
The main opponents of the measure, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said voters likely voted to pass the measure without understanding that they were making it easier to raise taxes in the future.
"Many who saw that Prop 39 required a 55 percent vote for bonds thought this would make it harder to pass bonds," Jon Coupal, the president of the taxpayers' association, said in a statement. "As new bonds begin to show up on property-tax bills, support for the two-thirds vote will grow."
Backers of the measure countered that the ample coverage the news media gave the measure made clear that it would lower the threshold required to pass local school bonds.
And Bruce Fuller, a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank based at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, noted that the groundswell of support that pushed the measure into the victory column came disproportionately from large urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the poor conditions of school facilities have been widely publicized.
"The median income of L.A. County is pretty low," Mr. Fuller said. "These are folks that are hurting economically, but still willing to pay a few shekels a year to improve their schools."
Spending Cap Skirted
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. By contrast, a ballot measure to authorize the creation of charter schools was trailing late last week.
Dominating the victory lists was Initiative 728, which received 72 percent of the vote. I-728 will 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.
"I think the voters have spoken pretty decisively that they want smaller class sizes and more investment in schools," said Lisa D. Macfarlane, one of the leaders of the I-728 campaign.
When fully phased in by 2004, the initiative—which was designed to step around a state spending cap— will give districts $450 per student in additional revenue. The extra allotments are to be discontinued when the state's funding for K-12 education reaches 90 percent of the national average.
Washington voters also decisively passed Initiative 732, a measure to guarantee teachers and other school employees annual cost-of-living increases.
"The 60 percent 'yes' vote—it says very clearly that when voters say education is at top of their list, it's important for them, and they voted that way," said Lee Ann Preelip, the president of the Washington Education Association, the National Education Association affiliate that spearheaded the I-732 campaign.
But opponents argued that the automatic raises would come at the expense of state funding for other priorities, and that the measure unfairly singled out teachers.
"School employees aren't the only public employees with pay inequities," the Washington Public Employees Association, an independent union based in Olympia, wrote in arguments against the amendment included in an online voters' guide prepared by the secretary of state's office. "I-732 excludes 80,000 deserving public employees!"
In Washington state, the legislature allocates money to districts each year under a formula that includes specific amounts for employee salaries; in about three-quarters of the districts, the salary formula has been adopted in collective bargaining agreements.
Under I-732, beginning in the 2001-02 school year, the state formula will include automatic raises equal to the rate of the yearly rise in the state's cost of living. Supporters argued that the measure was needed for schools to compete in hiring personnel in a tight labor market, and said it would bring teacher pay closer to the national average and salaries in neighboring states.
Washington's automatic cost-of-living raise for school employees is a national first, said Michael Pons, a policy analyst for the NEA. Mr. Pons said the idea might spread, owing to the intense competition among districts to recruit teachers. "I think other states are going to be looking at whether a statewide escalator clause will meet their needs, by making sure there's at least an ongoing commitment to stability in compensation," he said.
Anti-Tax Measures Fail
Education leaders in Oregon, meanwhile, cheered victories on all fronts of a multipronged battle waged against a series of initiatives they said would be harmful to schools.
Sixty-five 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, Oregonians rejected two tax-related measures that opponents said would cut significantly into the state's ability to pay for education programs. Fifty-five percent of voters rejected Measure 91, which would have allowed state residents to deduct all federal income taxes from their state returns. A measure that would have limited state spending to 15 percent of Oregonians' personal income also was voted down, with 56 percent opposed and 44 percent in favor.
Finally, in a victory proponents said was a big boost for schools, 65 percent of voters passed Measure 1, an initiative supported by Gov. John A. Kitzhaber, a Democrat, that would require the legislature to provide enough funding for schools to meet the state's education goals or publish a report explaining why the funding fell short.
Becky Miller, the spokeswoman for Oregon Taxpayers United, the organization that backed the tax and merit-pay measures, said the group was heavily outspent by the coalition of education groups that fought the measures and did not have enough funding to "counteract the lies" put forth by their opponents. Besides clashing over those questions, the taxpayers group squared off with state educators over a measure to prohibit payroll deductions for political purposes—a mainstay of union fund raising— without written consent. The proposal was defeated, with 55 percent of voters opposing it.
"It's disgusting to me to see these people stealing money out of the pockets of workers and using it to lie," Ms. Miller declared. "We never had the money to be able to tell people the truth."
But James K. Sager, the president of the Oregon Education Association, called the allegations of dishonest campaigning "absurd."
"Our campaign was very much a community- oriented conversation," said Mr. Sager, whose state affiliate of the National Education Association was a part of the coalition that opposed the tax measures. "We were very clear with community members as to what we felt the impact of the measures would be, and supported it with data. Oregonians made it clear that they didn't want to deprive schools and other vital services any longer."
Oregon voters also turned back a proposal that would have prohibited schools from providing instruction construed as condoning homosexuality. ("Ore. Rejects Proposal To Restrict What Schools Teach About Gays," Nov. 15, 2000.)
Colorado OKs Funding
In Colorado, voters opted to pump new money into schools, approving by 52 percent to 48 percent a measure to put an estimated $4.58 billion in new funding into schools over the coming decade. Known as Amendment 23, the measure 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 the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden, Colo., and the measure's leading opponent.
But Ellen Marshall, the campaign coordinator for the coalition of education groups supporting the amendment, said 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," she said.
Arizona voters also said yes to more school funding, passing 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.
While the measure passed with 53 percent of the vote, 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 election night. "We're going to show what additional funding and additional accountability can accomplish."
Voters Bet on Lottery
Voters in South Carolina 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.
The lottery fight isn't finished, however. Lawmakers must still approve a plan for how lottery income will be used. Gov. Hodges will try to persuade Republican lawmakers to approve his plan for using the money, which stresses scholarships and teacher training and designates leftover money for school technology.
State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, a Democrat and political ally of the governor's, says there's already talk of putting lottery money into the general education budget.
"If you do that, you will completely lose the effects of the lottery," said Ms. Tenenbaum, who like the governor insists that using lottery money is the best way to increase access to college. "People that are talking about putting it in the general education fund are those people who for partisan reasons do not want to see the governor get credit for a massive college scholarship program."
Gov. Hodges has said he would veto anything different from what he has proposed: up to $4,000 in scholarships to be added to the existing $3,000 scholarships for students with B averages and scores of at least 1000 on the SAT, plus free tuition for all students at the state's two-year colleges and graduate-level courses for teachers.
The governor estimates that about $45 million of the $150 million in total lottery profits in the first year will be designated for computers in schools.
A lottery measure also passed in Virginia, where voters approved a requirement that income from the state's existing lottery be spent on nothing but education.
Louisiana Tax Plan Fails
But not all education funding measures won support. Citizens in Arkansas voted down a little-publicized plan to devote some of the proceeds from a proposed statewide lottery and six new casinos to education.
And Louisiana residents voted by a ratio of 2-to-1 to defeat a measure that, in effect, would have increased income taxes. Had it passed, state lawmakers had committed to using the $202 million the measure was expected to generate for salary increases for teachers, other school employees, and professors at state-run colleges.
Les Landon, a spokesman for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the union was calling on Gov. Mike Foster and state legislators to call a special session to raise taxes.
If lawmakers do not move quickly to raise educators' pay, Mr. Landon said, "we will encourage all of our local chapters to do whatever is necessary to get their legislators to put education as their top priority."
"We're really tired of being told that there's no money for teacher pay raises," added the spokesman for the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "It's not out of the question that there will be sick-outs, and maybe even strikes."
Marsanne Golsby, a spokeswoman for Gov. Foster, said that the Republican governor would not call for a special session unless a consensus formed about how best to pay for the salary increases.
"It's time to come up with another game plan," Ms. Golsby said. "Teachers are going to have to get out there and educate the public."
Staff Writers Alan Richard and Andrew Trotter and Assistant Editor Mary Ann Zehr contributed to this report.
Vol. 20, Issue 11, Pages 1, 22-25Published in Print: November 15, 2000, as State Voters OK More Spending For Education