Alabama voters surprised many observers last week by rejecting their governor’s plan to create a new state lottery to pay for education initiatives.
The proposal, modeled after an education lottery in neighboring Georgia, was opposed by 54 percent of the nearly 1.3 million voters who weighed in on the Oct. 12 referendum.
The lottery was expected to provide a minimum of $150 million annually for three designated purposes: college scholarships, prekindergarten programs, and technology in schools. (“Debate Grows as Alabama Lottery Vote Nears,” Oct. 6, 1999. )
Many religious leaders and conservative organizations in the state had made lottery opposition a top priority. The groups’ efforts are credited in large part with persuading voters--who turned out in large numbers--to reject a plan that polls last month indicated had about 60 percent support.
“There was a tremendous outreach in the churches,” said the Rev. Joe Bob Mizzell, the director of ethics for the Alabama Baptist Convention.
The vote marked a significant defeat for Gov. Donald Siegelman, a Democrat who made the lottery a central point of his election campaign last year, when he unseated Republican incumbent Fob James Jr.
In recent weeks, Mr. Siegelman spent considerable time campaigning for the lottery plan, and went so far as to form a nonprofit organization to promote and raise money for the ballot measure.
The day following the lottery’s defeat, Mr. Siegelman vowed to continue to push to improve education in his state, though he said he would not seek a tax hike to fund such efforts.
“Yesterday left me more energized ... and more determined than ever before to keep fighting for a change in education that will make a difference in our children’s lives,” he said at an Oct. 13 press conference.
South Carolina voters are slated to consider a similar lottery referendum in November 2000.
Opponents of the Alabama lottery argued that it would encourage gambling and create an education program disproportionately supported by the poor. They also stressed that a vote against the lottery was not a vote against education, and said that they were now committed to working with the governor to improve the schools.
“Both sides care about education,” said John R. Hill, a senior policy analyst for the Alabama Family Alliance, a Birmingham-based nonprofit education and research group. “Let’s work together and aim for some meaningful change.” But he said it was important to come up with “an Alabama plan,” rather than one just like Georgia’s.
Board Change Approved
The same day Alabamians rejected a lottery, they approved another ballot measure--Amendment 3--that would streamline the process used to switch from an appointed school board to an elected one in cities with populations of 125,000 or less.
Currently, all 67 county school boards in the state are elected, while 50 of the 61 city school boards are appointed.
The constitutional amendment would have an immediate impact on Tuscaloosa, where city voters last year approved changing from an appointed to an elected school board. A court ruling has kept the appointed board in place, but passage of the measure now paves the way for voters to elect school board members there beginning in 2001.
Until now, the state legislature has had to pass a constitutional amendment, which then had to be ratified by a statewide referendum, for a city to make the switch to an elected school board. Now, a simple legislative act, ratified by city voters, is all that is required.
Among the proponents of the school board measure was the Alabama Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. The plan was opposed by the Alabama Association of School Boards.
“We see good things about both methods of selection,” Sandra Sims-deGraffrenried, the executive director of the school boards’ group, said of elected vs. appointed boards. She argued that the traditional process was “deliberative and thought-provoking,” while the streamlined approach would pave the way for “knee-jerk reactions” that could prompt radical changes overnight.