From private school vouchers to cost-of-living salary increases for teachers, voters in more than a dozen states will be taking matters in their own hands at the polls next week when they decide the fate of a wide range of education- related ballot measures.
In a trend that experts say reflects a continued desire for school improvement and impatience with the pace of change, a record number of citizen-backed initiatives are appearing on state ballots this year, in addition to numerous referendums placed there by state legislatures.
According to the Washington-based Initiative and Referendum Institute, the ballots will feature 11 citizen initiatives that directly address education policy, in addition to a growth-management initiative in Arizona and a state lottery proposal in Arkansas that would affect funding for schools. That is more than twice the number of education initiatives that appeared on the ballot in the last presidential-election year.
“Certain constituencies are impatient with what the legislature has been doing,” said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “But you won’t know exactly how many people are ready to get things done until the vote tally comes in.”
Voting on Vouchers
Advocates and foes of school vouchers nationwide are paying close attention to California and Michigan, where prominent business leaders have helped finance media-heavy campaigns in support of initiatives that would institute statewide voucher programs. (“Vouchers Facing Two Major Tests,” Sept. 27, 2000.)
California polls have consistently shown a lack of support for Proposition 38, a measure that would make students at public and private schools statewide eligible for publicly funded vouchers of roughly $4,000 annually to offset the cost of tuition at private schools, including those with religious affiliations.
A poll of 852 likely voters published last week by the Los Angeles Times indicated that support for the measure was continuing to decline, with roughly two-thirds of voters saying they would vote against it, 27 percent saying they favored it, and 7 percent undecided. The margin of error for the poll was 4 percentage points.
And while voucher proponents had higher hopes for Michigan’s Proposal 1, which until recently logged favorable poll results, recent voter surveys indicate that the bottom has dropped out of the measure’s base of support.
Proposal 1 is more targeted than the California initiative, offering vouchers only to those students in districts with low graduation rates. A poll of 600 likely voters conducted Oct. 12 by EPIC/MRA, an independent polling firm based in Lansing, Mich., found that only 32 percent of the respondents supported the measure, while 59 percent opposed it. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.
National groups opposed to vouchers maintain that losing both state initiatives would be a significant blow to the movement for publicly financed vouchers for private schooling, especially because such defeats would add to a history of insufficient popular support for such measures on statewide ballots. State voters rejected voucher proposals in Michigan in 1978, Oregon in 1990, Colorado in 1992, and California in 1993—and all by ratios of at least 2-to-1.
Adding two new failures at a time when vouchers enjoy a more prominent place in the public discourse “would take the wind out of their sails,” argued Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association. “Obviously, the hearts and minds of the public are not with them. No amount of money is going to change that.”
But Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based organization that promotes school choice, suggested that if both the Michigan and California voucher initiatives fail, it will say more about the initiative process than the level of popular support for vouchers.
“As you get close to election time, people are barraged with media and lots of competing facts,” Ms. Allen said. “They feel very uncomfortable in their own right, even when they support school choice, in deciding on something that they perceive as a change. I don’t think initiatives and school choice ever work.”
Bar for Bonds on Ballot
California voters appear more evenly split in their opinions on Proposition 39, a ballot measure that would make it easier for school districts to pass school bonds by lowering the vote required to approve them from a two-thirds to a 55 percent majority. The initiative was placed on the ballot last spring, following the narrow defeat of Proposition 26, a measure that would have lowered the vote required to pass school bonds to a simple majority.
According to the poll released last week by the Los Angeles Times, 55 percent of likely voters said they favored the passage of Proposition 39, with 32 percent opposed and 13 percent undecided.
Supporters of the measure—including Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, the California affiliate of the National Education Association, and a host of Silicon Valley computer executives—maintain that the two-thirds requirement for voter approval is simply too high a hurdle for many districts to clear. They also argue that the supermajority rule has exacerbated the space crunch in California schools.
Only three other states—Idaho, Missouri, and New Hampshire—require a two-thirds majority for the passage of local school bonds.
But opponents of the measure argue that the state should shore up funding for school facilities out of its sizable surplus, or try to pass another statewide bond measure for school facilities, before asking local homeowners to bear more of the tax burden.
The television ads in favor of Proposition 39 “never mention that this initiative will make it easier to raise taxes,” said Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for the No On 39 campaign, a branch of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “More bonds will pass, and districts are likely to ask for more money from taxpayers since it’s an easier threshold.”
Finance Questions Abound
A number of ballot initiatives and legislative referendums in other states also address school funding issues.
In both Colorado and Washington state, for example, voters will decide the fate of ballot measures intended to skirt voter-approved initiatives from previous years that have limited state lawmakers’ ability to approve new spending. Washington’s Initiative 728, which has received wide support, would direct an estimated $1.5 billion to school districts over the next five years. (Wash. Initiative Would Skirt Spending Limits, Oct. 4, 2000.)
Colorado’s Amendment 23, meanwhile, would require the legislature to fund education over the next 10 years at the rate of inflation, plus 1 percent, directing an estimated $4.58 billion in new funding to schools. Its proponents say the initiative is intended to get around the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, or TABOR, a measure approved by voters in 1992.
That earlier measure has prevented lawmakers from increasing spending beyond limits tied to population growth and inflation, and has given money from the state surplus back to residents through sizable income-tax refunds.
A poll of 491 registered voters conducted in October by the Rocky Mountain News and a local television station indicated that 67 percent of registered voters surveyed supported the measure, with 16 percent opposed and 17 percent undecided. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.
While Colorado schools have received significant funding increases for the past two years, that aid has not made up for the budget shortfalls schools faced in previous years, said Deborah Fallin, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, an NEA affiliate.
“We have one of the highest pupil-teacher ratios in the country, and that is directly a result of the TABOR initiative,” Ms. Fallin said. “In some districts, they haven’t been able to buy the new materials they need that are aligned with state standards. That’s a problem.”
But opponents argue that by taking money from the state surplus to pay for new school funding, the initiative would reduce the amount of money taxpayers see in their refund checks by approximately $1,500 each over the 10-year period. And if the state faces an economic downturn or a year without surpluses, the legislature would be forced make cuts elsewhere in the budget to pay for the increased spending on schools, said Jon Caldara, the president of the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden, Colo.
“This is a dangerous amendment,” Mr. Caldara said. “It’s well-intentioned, but very sloppily written, and we will have to cut Medicaid, corrections, transportation, and higher education to increase funding on K-12.”
In addition to those initiatives and referendums that would directly affect schools, concerns over education have come into play in other ballot-measure campaigns that involve tax cuts.
Oregon educators, for example, have decried a measure in their state that would allow residents to deduct federal income taxes from their state tax returns. Schools would suffer budget cuts as a result, education groups fear.
Still, none of the tax- cutting measures would explicitly reduce education spending, said M. Dane Waters, the president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute.
“But when people can make the claim that an initiative will hurt education, it’s unlikely to pass,” Mr. Waters added. “Basically, what happens with these tax measures is that it requires legislatures to make tough decisions.”