As voters head to the ballot box next month, millions of voters in 11 states will have the opportunity to cast their vote on various education-focused state initiatives, referendums, and amendments.
While the number of education measures this election cycle pales in comparison to 2012—a dozen proposals this year compared to 24 in the presidential election year—the initiatives could have a significant impact on school funding, class sizes, the use of technology, and teacher evaluation and tenure systems.
Voters in Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, and New York will see proposals that would increase funding for public schools paid for through a new tax or bond.
“I think especially with initiatives and referendums, a lot of times these focus on funding,” said Lauren Heintz, education policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “They all approach it in different ways, of course, and a lot depends on what the budgets are like in each state.”
In addition to state ballot initiatives that focus on education funding and teacher reform, voters will also be asked to weigh other pre-K-12 education and higher education measures on Nov. 4.
Amendment 4: Would allow the state to use public funds to support private early-childhood education programs.
Measure 8: Would shift the school year to begin on July 1 and end June 30, with school classes beginning Labor Day.
Measure 86: Would allow the state to issue bonds for an education fund that provides financial aid for college or job-training programs.
Constitutional Amendment 2: Would change the appointment process for the governing boards of individual institutions.
Constitutional Amendment A: Would change the appointment process for the governing boards of individual institutions.
Constitutional Amendment 3: Would change the state’s governance structure by replacing the current 11-member state board of higher education with a three-member commission on higher education.
SOURCE: National Conferences of State Legislatures
In Colorado, for example, new state mandates and severe budget cuts have persisted for roughly half a decade, resulting in nearly $1 billion in underfunding for education.
Proposed Amendment 68 attempts to address that problem, and could, by some estimates, generate more than $400 million. It would allow casinos to set up at horse racetracks, and taxes collected from the gaming activities would be directed to an education fund used to reduce class sizes, increase technology in schools, enhance school safety, and improve school facilities.
Though increased education funding is widely supported—Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper requested a 3.4 percent increase in per-pupil funding in his fiscal 2015 budget, and superintendents across Colorado have been pressing state lawmakers for more funding—the amendment is not a sure pass.
Focus on Funding
Some critics of the proposal don’t want education propped up by a so-called sin tax, and the state has a history of voting down tax-based education-funding ballot initiatives: Last November, Colorado voters soundly rejected an income tax increase that would have supplied public schools in the state with about $950 million in additional annual revenue, most of it for low-income students.
Measures on the ballot in Illinois and Nevada propose increasing education funding through straightforward tax hikes. In Illinois, Public Act 098-0794 would increase taxes by 3 percent on incomes greater than $1 million, while in Nevada, Question 3 would increase taxes by 2 percent on businesses whose total revenue exceeds $1 million.
In contrast, Proposal 3 in New York would use state bonds to boost classroom funding. The measure would authorize the sale of state bonds up to $2 billion to increase access to classroom technology and high-speed Internet, to increase classroom space for prekindergarten students, to replace classroom trailers with permanent instructional space, and to install high-tech smart security features in schools.
Meanwhile, Initiative 1351 in Washington state doesn’t specify where the money to increase education funding would come from, but would direct the legislature to increase spending to reduce class sizes and hire support staff, such as librarians, counselors, and nurses, giving priority to schools that serve low-income communities.
Voters in the Evergreen State will be eagerly awaiting the results of this initiative in particular, as a significant legal battle has erupted recently between the state Supreme Court and the legislature over inadequate school funding.
On Nov. 4, Missouri voters will get their say on the most sweeping teaching-profession reform proposal offered in years, though it’s largely expected to fail.
Amendment 3 would create a standards-based performance-evaluation system for teachers, who could then be dismissed, retained, promoted, and paid based in part on quantifiable student-performance data. It would also limit teacher contracts with school districts to three years and prohibit teachers from organizing or collectively bargaining in regard to the design and implementation of the teacher-evaluation system.
Most education advocacy groups in the state came out swinging against the proposal, including the Missouri Education Association. “The main problem with Amendment 3 is that it would implement a new standardized testing system,” said Michael Sherman, the communications director for Protect Our Local Schools, the organization campaigning against the measure.
“Teachers are great at what they do because they meet the individual needs of the students, but standardized testing is a one-size-fits-all model, and that’s a huge problem.”
But critics of the measure are breathing easier after Teach Great, the political action committee formed to advocate for the measure, called off its multi-million dollar publicity campaign in early September after the proposal didn’t poll well.
Still, the amendment garnered enough signatures to appear on the ballot.
Like the Missouri teaching amendment, the ballot initiatives aiming to increase education funding through tax mechanisms may also face an uphill battle, at least compared to those that would be financed through bonds.
“Tax increases seem to fail more frequently than bond measures, and I would guess that that will still be true come this year,” said Wendy Underhill, a senior policy analyst and state ballot expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Indeed, in 2012, four tax proposals failed and two passed, whereas three bond measures passed and one failed.
Ms. Underhill emphasized, however, that nothing can be forecasted with absolutely accuracy.
“Everything is state by state and all politics is local, and all ballot measures are local too,” she said.
Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Voters Will Weigh Ed. Measures