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Education-Related Ballot Items Reflect Fiscal, Policy Concerns

By Michele McNeil — November 11, 2008 4 min read
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Maryland is getting slot machines in exchange for about $660 million for education. Oregon’s schools can continue to teach English-language learners in their native language for as long as they want. And Nebraska universities and school programs won’t be able to use race as a factor in admissions.

Far down on state ballots across the country, those and at least a dozen other measures affecting education and hot-button social issues were decided last week by voters.

The Maryland slot machine measure was the biggest gambling initiative among the six states where voters weighed proposals either to produce new revenue sources specifically for public schools or to alter the flow of gambling-related money earmarked for education.

Protesters march down Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, Calif., on Nov. 5 during a "No on Prop 8" rally.

Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, many school districts, and the teachers’ union had endorsed the state constitutional amendment, which supporters say would generate about $660 million a year in additional general aid for schools. Proponents hope the revenue from 15,000 slot machines can stave off deep cuts to K-12 education in the face of a projected $1 billion budget deficit.

“We need these dollars, especially in these tough times,” Gov. O’Malley said in a televised interview Nov. 4, after the slots victory became clear.

Gambling measures also were approved in Arkansas, Colorado, and Missouri, but voters turned down a proposal in Maine. They also rejected an Oregon plan that would have redirected lottery money from education to public safety. Ohio voters also said no to the state’s first casino, which would have created new general tax revenue for counties. The counties could have chosen to use the additional funds for education or other services.

ELL Cap Rejected

State Ballot Measures

Voters decided on a number of education-related issues:

ALABAMA

Amendment 1—Allows 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. (PASS)

ARKANSAS

Amendment 3—Authorizes lotteries to fund scholarships and grants for Arkansas residents in certain public and private nonprofit two- and four-year colleges and universities in the state. (PASS)

CALIFORNIA

Proposition 8—Eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry and provides that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. (PASS)

COLORADO

Amendment 46—Prohibits “preferential treatment” of any individual or group based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, education, or contracting. (UNDECIDED)

Amendment 49—Prohibits public-employee payroll deductions for purposes such as union dues or fees to other organizations. (FAIL)

Amendment 50—Expands gambling limits and funnels the resulting revenue into community colleges in the state. (PASS)

Amendment 51—Raises sales taxes by 0.2 percent over two years and uses the money to pay for services for children and adults with developmental disabilities. (FAIL)

Amendment 54—Prohibits 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 prohibits contributors to ballot-issue campaigns from entering into certain government contracts relating to ballot issues. (PASS)

Amendment 58—Increases taxes paid on oil and natural-gas companies and channels some of the increased revenue into college scholarships. (FAIL)

Amendment 59—Eliminates taxpayer rebates in the case of a revenue surplus and instead puts the money into pre-K-12 public education. (FAIL)

FLORIDA

Amendment 8—Clears the way for counties to levy optional local sales taxes, subject to voter approval, to supplement community college funding. (FAIL)

GEORGIA

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

LOUISIANA

Amendment 1—Sets a three-term limit on members of the state school board and the boards governing state colleges and universities. (PASS)

MAINE

Question 2—Allows a casino in Oxford County and dedicates 11 percent of the gross gambling income to college-tuition-finance programs, community colleges, and local schools. (FAIL)

MARYLAND

Question 2—Authorizes slot-machine gambling to help finance public education. (PASS)

MASSACHUSETTS

Question 1—Eliminates the state’s personal-income tax, starting in 2010, and cuts it to 2.65 percent from 5.3 percent as of Jan. 1. 2009. (FAIL)

MISSOURI

Proposition A—As part of a broader measure on gambling, increases the casino-gambling tax and uses the proceeds for a new elementary and secondary education improvement fund. (PASS)

MONTANA

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

NEBRASKA

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

NEW MEXICO

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

Constitutional Amendment 4—Allows school board elections to be held at the same time as other nonpartisan elections. (PASS)

OREGON

Measure 54—Repeals 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. (PASS)

Measure 58—Puts limits on the amount of time non-English-speaking public school students may be taught in a language that is not English. (PASS)

Measure 60—Bases teacher pay raises on “classroom performance” and prohibits districts from giving raises based on seniority. (FAIL)

Measure 62—Redirects 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. (FAIL)

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

SOUTH CAROLINA

Amendment 2—Allows investments in equities by trust funds set up to pay retirement benefits, such as health insurance, for state employees and teachers. (FAIL)

SOURCE: Education Week

Also in Oregon, voters defeated a pair of highly contentious ballot questions, including one that would have put strict limits on bilingual education and another that would have tied teacher raises to classroom performance. A coalition that included state affiliates of the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Oregon PTA mobilized against both proposals.

The bilingual education measure, which drew national attention from English-language-learner advocates, would have put a two-year cap on instruction for such students in their native language. It went down by a 53 percent to 47 percent vote.

Bill Sizemore, the sponsor of what was known as Measure 58 and a resident of Klamath Falls, Ore., said he believes it would have passed if the words “English immersion” had been inserted into the title.

He acknowledged that the language of the text was also confusing. Many interpreted the measure as requiring a two-year cap on English-as-a-second-language instruction as well, though Mr. Sizemore said that was not his intention.

But James Crawford, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Language and Education Policy, said he believes Oregon’s voters recognized Measure 58 as “the most extreme and mean-spirited of all the English-only initiatives at the state level in recent years.”

Mr. Crawford, who spent two weeks in Oregon before Election Day helping local organizations fight the initiative, contended that it was backed “by forces who were explicitly anti-immigrant, trying to save money by shortchanging immigrant kids.”

Social, Tax Issues

Nebraska and Colorado considered another controversial issue: a proposed ban on government-preferential treatment of people based on race, gender, or ethnicity.

Voters in the Cornhusker State approved such a prohibition in the form of the Nebraska Civil Rights Initiative, while a Colorado ban was still too close to call late last week. The Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures said that if Colorado voted it down, the state would become the first to reject an affirmative-action ban when put before the electorate.

In Louisiana and New Mexico, voters approved changes in their education governance structures. Members of the Louisiana state board of education and the governing boards of public colleges and universities will now be limited to three terms in office; the members previously didn’t face term limits. In New Mexico, the size of district school boards in communities with populations greater than 200,000 will grow from seven to nine members, and school elections will be held at the same time as other nonpartisan elections.

Around the country, voters also rejected tax changes tied to education and children’s services. Colorado voters turned down a plan to raise the sales tax to help pay for services for children and adults with developmental disabilities. Florida voters rejected a proposal to allow counties to raise sales taxes to subsidize community colleges.

Massachusetts voters, meanwhile, chose to keep the state’s income tax. Education groups had warned that its elimination would hurt school programs and services.

Oregon and Colorado voters also considered measures that would have prohibited public-employee payroll deductions for “political” purposes, such as union dues. Oregon voters rejected the measure, while Colorado voters approved.

In California, a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage passed, despite strong opposition from the California Teachers Association, which donated more than $1.3 million in an attempt to defeat it. Supporters of the proposal had argued that schools would be forced to teach about same-sex marriage unless the constitutional amendment were passed.

The issue was about more than same-sex marriage, said Sonja Eddings Brown, a spokeswoman for Protect Marriage California. The measure “is about education,” she said, “and whether or not parents and educators want to have gay instruction brought into our elementary schools.”

Assistant Editors Linda Jacobson and Mary Ann Zehr contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Education-Related Ballot Items Reflect Fiscal, Policy Concerns

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