School & District Management

Voters Weigh K-12 Finance at Ballot Box

By David J. Hoff — October 19, 2004 8 min read
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Voters in some states will cast ballots Nov. 2 on proposals that could shape the future of school spending for years to come.

Among the 32 states that will decide ballot measures in the upcoming general elections, residents in at least a dozen will take stands on whether to force their states to raise school funding, provide lottery or gambling revenues to schools, or restrict taxes that traditionally have raised money for education.

The results could mean dramatic increases in K-12 spending in states such as Nevada, Oklahoma, and Washington. At the same time, the outcomes could shrink local money available for schools in Maine, Missouri, and other states where ballot measures would limit municipalities’ ability to levy property taxes.

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Table: Ballot Measures

Taking the school finance debate directly to voters has become increasingly popular in recent years, say political scientists who follow the voter-initiative process.

Education advocates are being especially aggressive in appealing to voters this year after having struggled over school funding in lean state budgets in recent years.

“They’re going to the ballot to get priority for education, which they can’t get from the state legislature,” said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. “We’ll see an increasing number of these initiatives until the economy recovers.”

Advocates will continue to take such questions directly to voters, another expert said, for a simple reason: They often succeed.

“You have a very good chance of getting your way from the electorate at large,” said John G. Matsusaka, the president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.

Nevada’s Choices

A total of 156 measures will go before voters on statewide ballots in two weeks, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute.

The hot topic in Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, and other states is whether to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman in state constitutions. In Alabama, meanwhile, voters will decide whether to strike an obsolete requirement for segregated schools from the state constitution.

While education issues don’t dominate ballots nationally, the financing of schools is a major issue.

Nevadans will decide two ballot questions that would change both how and by how much the state legislature would finance schools.

The first, sponsored by a Republican assemblywoman, would require the legislature to pass a school funding bill before appropriating money for anything else.

The second would require the state to meet or exceed the national average for per-pupil funding in K-12 education by the 2012-13 school year. In 2001-02, the state ranked 46th in that category, almost $1,700 below the national mean, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

If the measures pass this year, Nevada voters will need to approve them again in 2006 before they can take effect.

Assemblywoman Dawn Gibbons decided to pursue the first ballot question after the legislature delayed the passage of a school funding bill last year. Because lawmakers fought so long over taxes to pay for the bill, schools had to delay ordering textbooks and taking other steps to get ready for the school year, she said. (“Justices Decline to Hear Nevada Case on Taxes for Schools,” March 31, 2004.)

“Let’s do first things first,” Ms. Gibbons said. “Let’s put our priorities where they need to be: on our children’s education first.”

Gov. Kenny Guinn, who is a Republican, and Ms. Gibbons’ husband, U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., back the measure, she said.

Although the question is considered likely to pass, critics say it would have little impact.

“It’s a meaningless, feel-good ruse to hoodwink the public into thinking that education is going to be elevated into the stratosphere,” said Bob Fulkerson, the executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a Reno-based coalition of 43 education, labor, and social-service groups.

The second question would require the state to make generous increases in K-12 education aid before the 2012-13 deadline.

The Nevada State Education Association sponsored the measure because it saw the state falling further behind the national per-pupil spending average, said Dan Hart, the campaign director of Nevadans for the National Average.

“It’s a very logical argument for the voter to parse,” said Mr. Hart. “We’re not talking about anything extraordinary. We’re talking about keeping up with the Joneses.”

A September poll conducted for several Nevada news organizations found strong support for the measures, with each receiving support from at least two-thirds of the 600 likely voters surveyed.

But not all Nevadans are supporting the union on its proposal.

Even though Mr. Fulkerson’s group includes the union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, among its members, the group is neutral on the union’s plan. Social-service and health groups fear that legislators would gut their programs to meet the new ambitious per-pupil spending increases, Mr. Fulkerson said.

“People are pretty much at a loss to explain where the hell we’re going to get that money without cutting other programs,” he said.

Billion-Dollar Boost

Washington state’s Initiative 884 would add an estimated $1 billion a year to education areas, ranging from prekindergarten to college. The funding would come by raising the sales tax by 1 percentage point. (“Education Issues Are Dominant Theme in Washington State,” Oct. 13, 2004.)

I-884 is the most expensive education-related ballot issue in the nation this year, Mr. Matsusaka of the Initiative and Referendum Institute said. The Washington initiative’s supporters, he said, are using an effective strategy of specifying how the new money would be spent: They are citing the chance to finance 10,000 new preschool slots, reduce K-12 class sizes, and add room for 25,000 new students in the state’s colleges and universities.

“The word has to be that it goes to the classroom,” he said of the proposed new money. “The problem they have is, it’s so much money that they’re talking about.”

But supporters of I-884 profess confidence. A September poll of 406 registered voters found that 52 percent said they supported the measure. The poll had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

The poll also showed that 70 percent of likely voters ages 18 to 34 supported the measure, a figure that bodes well for its passage, said Natalie D. Reber, the communications director for the League of Education Voters, the Seattle-based sponsor of the initiative.

With various efforts to boost the turnout of that demographic group, Ms. Reber said, the initiative’s supporters are optimistic. “All along, we’ve known it will be close,” she said. “We’re seeing very little opposition. We think we have a good chance.”

Opponents, however, question whether the state would use the revenue wisely and argue that tax increase would fall disproportionately on the shoulders of the poor.

Gaming and Taxes

In Oklahoma, Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, is supporting measures that would increase spending on elementary and secondary education with a new statewide lottery and new fees on existing American Indian casinos.

Supporters expect the measures to raise school aid by more than $200 million a year. The state’s current K-12 budget is $2 billion.

But the measures face opposition from Baptist organizations, which say the state shouldn’t profit from gambling.

“Gaming already exists in Oklahoma, and we’re surrounded by states that have the lottery,” argued David N. DuVall, the exe cutive director of the Oklahoma Education Association, an NEA

affiliate and a supporter of the measure. “It’s time for schools to start benefiting from those funds.”

In Missouri, the public will vote on a measure that could divert money from the state’s general fund. Amendment 3 would dedicate revenues from motor-vehicle sales taxes and fuel taxes for road construction and repair. That would channel almost $190 million away from the general fund, according to the Missouri National Education Association.

“It will siphon funds now used for education and other programs to support a massive increase in road construction,” Greg Jung, the president of the union, said in a statement opposing the measure.

Property Taxes

In addition to efforts to raise school spending, voters in several states will also vote on property taxes.

Maine voters will decide whether to cap municipal taxes at 1 percent of a property’s value at its 1997 assessed rate.

The measure would reduce property-tax revenues by $592 million—or 31 percent—by fiscal 2006, according to estimates from the Maine Municipal Association. Such a reduction would inevitably cut into school funding and other municipal services, the group said.

Other states have passed similar caps without drastic cuts, countered Carol Palesky, the Topsham, Maine, activist who sponsored the measure.

Taxpayers put the question on the ballot because the governor and the legislature didn’t keep their promise to provide property-tax relief in this year’s legislative session, Ms. Palesky added.

Indiana and Louisiana voters also will weigh measures that could reduce property-tax revenue, although not as drastically as under Maine’s proposal.

In Arkansas, the legislature is asking voters to increase the minimum rate at which local districts tax property. The rate would rise by 3 mills—or 3 cents for every $100 in value. Supporters acknowledge that the measure faces opposition in the anti-tax state. But legislators say the state will need the revenue to comply with a state supreme court order to improve school buildings.

“It sure would help” pay for needed repairs, said Sen. Dave Bisbee, a Republican who backs the measure. “Everybody’s afraid of it, and nobody’s out there actively supporting it.”

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