Education in Spotlight on Statewide Ballots

By Katie Ash — October 06, 2008 6 min read
Teacher Brian Squire talks with student Abdi Somow, from Somalia, at Westview High School in Portland, Ore. State voters will decide whether to put strict limits on non-English instruction.
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Education issues are poised to break through the din of presidential politics and economic anxiety in more than a dozen states next month, as voters confront ballot questions and constitutional amendments involving K-12 policy and school finance.

High on the list are gambling referendums in six states—Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, and Oregon—that would either create new revenue sources for public schools or alter the flow of gambling-related money earmarked for education.

Aside from the gambling measures, some of the most contentious ballot questions may be in Oregon, where voters are being asked to put strict limits on bilingual education and tie teacher pay raises explicitly to classroom performance.

Those proposals—along with another that critics say could slash the amount of state lottery revenue available for schools—have drawn fire from Oregon teachers’ unions, which have given nearly $2.5 million to a coalition working to defeat the measures.

National Grab Bag

Nationally, dozens of legislative referendums, citizen initiatives, and proposed state constitutional amendments affecting education are on the ballot in at least 15 states, according to an overview by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Voters' Hands

These are among the top education-related items on state ballots Nov. 4.


Amendment 1—Would allow the Alabama Trust Fund to re-establish the rainy-day Education Trust Fund for up to 6.5 percent of the general education budget—or $435 million for this year—in case of a budget emergency.


Amendment 3—Would authorize lotteries to fund scholarships and grants for Arkansas citizens in certain public and private nonprofit two- and four-year colleges and universities in the state.


Amendment 46—Would prohibit “preferential treatment” to any individual or group based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, education, or contracting.

Amendment 49—Would prohibit public-employee payroll deductions for purposes such as union dues or fees to other organizations.

Amendment 50—Would expand gaming limits and funnel the resulting revenue into community colleges in the state.

Amendment 51—Would raise sales taxes by 0.2 percent over two years and use the money to pay for services for children and adults with developmental disabilities.

Amendment 54—Would prohibit unions that contract with state or local government from contributing to a political party or candidate during the term of the contract and two years after, and prohibit contributors to ballot-issue campaigns from entering into certain government contracts relating to ballot issues.

Amendment 58—Would increase taxes paid on oil and natural-gas companies and funnel some of the increased revenue into college scholarships.

Amendment 59—Would eliminate taxpayer rebates in the case of a revenue surplus and instead put the money into preschool through 12th grade public education.


Amendment 8—Would clear the way for counties to levy optional local sales taxes, subject to voter approval, to supplement community college funding.


Amendment 2—Would authorize the use of county, municipal, and school tax funds to pay for redevelopment programs, including repayment of tax-allocation bonds.


Amendment 1—Would set a three-term limit on members of the state school board and the boards governing state colleges and universities.


Question 2—Would allow a casino in Oxford County and dedicate 11 percent of the gross gambling income to college-tuition-finance programs, community colleges, and local schools.


Question 2—Would authorize slot machine gambling to help finance public education.


Question 1—Would eliminate the state’s personal-income tax, starting in 2010, and cut it to 2.65 percent from 5.3 percent as of Jan. 1. 2009.


Proposition A—As part of a broader measure on gambling, would increase the casino-gambling tax and use the proceeds for a new elementary and secondary education improvement fund.


I-155—Would expand health coverage for uninsured children under the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Montana Medicaid Program, and employer-sponsored health insurance.


Nebraska Civil Rights Initiative—Would prohibit “preferential treatment” to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public education, employment, and contracting.


Constitutional Amendment 1— Would increase to nine members, from seven, the size of school boards in communities with populations greater than 200,000.

Constitutional Amendment 4— Would allow school elections to be held at the same time as other nonpartisan elections.


Measure 54—Would repeal the section of the state constitution that requires voters in school board elections to be at least age 21, have lived in the school district for at least six months, and be able to read and write English.

Measure 58—Would put limits on the amount of time non-English-speaking public school students could be taught in a language that is not English.

Measure 60—Would base teacher pay raises on “classroom performance” and prohibit districts from giving raises based on seniority.

Measure 62—Would redirect the way money from state lottery proceeds is distributed, pulling roughly $200 million every two years from education funding to beef up law enforcement, criminal investigation, and forensics.

Measure 64—Would prohibit payroll deductions from public employees for organizations, including unions, that support or oppose candidates, political parties, initiatives, or ballot measures.


Amendment 2—Would allow trust funds set up to pay retirement benefits, such as health insurance, for state employees and teachers to invest in equities.

SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures

About half concern how public schools and school projects are funded, which is typical for even-year elections, said Jennie D. Bowser, an NCSL policy analyst.

Otherwise, no single issue dominates the debate this year, with individual states offering voters the chance to decide on such topics as school board governance, teacher union involvement in political activities, and affirmative action.

And given the long lead time—citizen initiatives typically require months of signature-gathering, and legislature-driven measures often are passed early in the year—items reflecting the current economic crisis are notably absent from next month’s ballot.

“I don’t see a flurry of anything in particular [this year],” said Kathy Christie, the chief of staff at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “The current economic questions would have been too late to impact the measures.”

The gambling-related proposals have been fiercely debated in states such as Maryland, where voters are being asked to authorize slot machines to raise money for K-12 education and for higher education construction projects.

Unions are the focus of several ballot items. A proposed constitutional amendment in Colorado would bar campaign contributions by unions with state or local labor contracts. An Oregon measure would ban payroll deductions by public employee unions involved in electioneering.

In New Mexico, a constitutional amendment would increase to nine members, from seven, the size of school boards in communities of 200,000 or more. Oregon would loosen the age and residency limits on school-board-election voters and remove the requirement that they be able to read and write English.

And two states—Colorado and Nebraska—have measures aimed at restricting affirmative action, prohibiting “preferential treatment” in education, contracting, or employment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.

No ballot measure appears to have generated the level of national attention that surrounded last year’s referendum on vouchers in Utah, a multi-million-dollar battle fueled by contributions from private-school-choice supporters and opponents around the country. (“Utah’s Vote Raises Bar on Choice,” Nov. 14, 2007.)

But within a number of states, individual proposals—and not just those affecting schools—have drawn some high-powered attention from education interests.

In California, for example, the 340,000-member California Teachers Association allocated up to $5 million to oppose such measures as a ban on same-sex marriage and a requirement for parental notification and a waiting period for minors seeking abortions.

Oregon Measures

In Oregon, two of the most controversial ballot measures—performance-based raises for teachers and limits on the amount of time non-English-speakers could be taught in their native languages—were spearheaded by one-time gubernatorial candidate Bill Sizemore.

Both top the list of measures being targeted for defeat by Defend Oregon, a broad coalition of organizations that includes the Oregon PTA, the Oregon Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers-Oregon.

The AFT-Oregon has contributed about $455,000 to the Portland-based coalition, while the Oregon Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, has shelled out about $2 million to back the group’s efforts.

“Both measures are poorly written and full of unintended consequences,” said Treasure Mackley, the executive director of the Parents and Teachers Know Better Coalition, the education-focused arm of Defend Oregon. She said it would be “left up to bureaucrats ... rather than teachers and education advocates” to sort out the details.

As it reads, the item known as Measure 58 would prevent instruction for English-language learners in their native languages after one year for students in kindergarten through 4th grade, a year and a half for 5th to 8th graders, and two years for 9th to 12th graders.

Mr. Sizemore, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998, contends that schools have intentionally held students back in English-language classes in order to receive the $2,961 in extra state funding that comes with each English-as-a-second-language student in each district. He said that stunts students’ learning and stops them from becoming fluent English-speakers.

Alice Morgenva, who speaks Russian and parts of three other languages, works on a writing assignment during Brian Squire's class at Westview High School in Portland, Oregon. A state ballot measure would put strict limits on non-English instruction.

“There are a lot of kids who come to this country—legally or illegally—who will be relegated to low-income jobs simply because the schools have failed to teach them English, which is the gateway language for success in this country,” said Mr. Sizemore.

But educators across the state disagree.

Susan Castillo, the superintendent of public instruction in Oregon, said the state has good measures in place to track the progress of English-learners, especially under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“In the past, prior to the higher levels of accountability we have now, there were some instances where children were kept in programs too long, but there’s been a lot more research and a lot more data gathered around that,” Ms. Castillo said.

She called the proposal “a solution for the old days, but we’re in a new time, and there isn’t a place for this type of measure.”

Performance Pay

Both teachers’ unions in the state are working hard against the proposal to tie teacher salaries to what ballot Measure 60 calls “classroom performance,” instead of the current blend of seniority, certification, experience, education level, and performance.

Supporters say the new system would reward the most effective teachers, not just those who have been teaching the longest.

“The current system simply rewards people for time and service,” said Russ Walker, the Northwest director of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based conservative advocacy group. “This measure makes it possible to reward good teachers and keep the best teachers in the system.”

But opponents fear the proposal would lead to more standardized testing.

In addition, “there’s a good chance it will steer teachers away from the most challenging assignments,” particularly those involving low-income and ELL students, said Robert A. Wagner, the director of political and legislative affairs at the aft-Oregon.

He also said the measure would undermine local control of schools. “Parents, teachers, and school board members should be engaged in what their community and education systems look like,” he said.

Education groups also oppose Oregon’s Measure 62, which would redirect the way that revenue from the state lottery is distributed—pulling roughly $200 million every two years from education funding to beef up law enforcement, criminal investigation, and forensics.

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Research librarians Kathryn Dorko and Rachael Delgado and Staff Writer Michele McNeil contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as Education in Spotlight On Statewide Ballots


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