State Ballot Measures Include Hot K-12 Issues

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 25, 2012 6 min read
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Big changes to the way teachers are evaluated and paid, expanded access to charter schools, and increased education funding are major issues on state ballot initiatives and referendums as election season enters its final weeks.

Some of the education-related ballot items, like those in Arizona and California, are part of the perennial effort to obtain more financial support for schools and seek to help K-12 school systems recover in part from the Great Recession and subsequent economic stagnation.

But other proposals—such as ones in Idaho and South Dakota—represent resistance from teachers’ unions and other groups to changes they view as antagonistic to public education, such as reduced collective bargaining rights or a bigger emphasis on standardized testing.

“That’s sort of what we’re seeing in general with popular referenda right now, ... that sort of pushback,” said Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, in Denver, who is tracking ballot initiatives and legislative referendums in 2012.

State Ballot Measures

The list below includes notable education-related ballot initiatives and legislative referendums up for a vote Nov. 6. Some deal with K-12 education, others with higher education, and still others with fiscal matters, such as taxes and budgets, that could have an impact on the schools’ level of state support.

Proposition 204—The Quality Education and Jobs Act would extend a 1-cent sales-tax increase originally enacted in 2010 but set to expire in 2013. If voters approve it, the ballot initiative will provide at least an additional $625 million to K-12 education in the state in the first year it takes effect, and will also prevent state lawmakers from making cuts to public school funding.
Proposition 118—Would increase the amount of money derived from state trust lands available to K-12 public education. If enacted, it would provide $62 million to schools, $10 million more than they would receive under the current formula used for deriving money from those lands, according to supporters.

Proposition 30—Backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, it would increase personal income taxes on annual earnings over $250,000 for seven years. Brown has said huge midyear cuts to K-12 education will occur if Proposition 30 is rejected by voters.
Proposition 38—Backed by lawyer Molly Munger, it would increase personal income taxes on annual earnings over $7,316 for seven years.

Resolution 1162—Would amend the state constitution to permit the state to create public charter schools. Specifically, it would re-establish a state-level commission that could authorize charters. The commission was created in 2008 but abolished by the state supreme court in 2011. State superintendent John Barge, a Republican, opposes the measure.

Proposition 1—A “yes” vote would restrict the scope of teachers’ ability to bargain collectively to just salaries and benefits, and also limit the duration of negotiated contracts between teachers and local school boards to one year.
Proposition 2—A “yes” vote would uphold “pay for performance” for teachers based in part on student test scores.
Proposition 3—A “yes” vote would uphold increasing the use of technology in classrooms, such as mandating that each high school student have access to a laptop computer.
The Idaho Education Association and the National Education Association are leading the fight to repeal the laws, passed in 2011 with the backing of state Superintendent Tom Luna.

Proposition B—Would tax different tobacco products at various rates and use the proceeds to fund both K-12 and higher education. Estimates on the additional revenue range from $283 million to $423 million annually. A Health and Education Trust Fund would be created and would also fund efforts to reduce the use of tobacco in the state.

Question 4—A “yes” vote would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at community colleges, subject to certain preconditions. Such immigrants would have to register for the Selective Service System and show intent to apply for permanent residency in order to qualify. This referendum concerns a state law passed in 2011.

State Question 759—Deals with access to higher education. Asks voters whether the state should be prohibited from granting “preferential treatment to or discriminating against” individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, ethnicity, or national origin for public employment or public education.

Measure 85—Would allocate the state’s corporate-income and excise-tax revenue “kicker” specifically to K-12 education. Under current Oregon law, the governor’s office must provide a revenue estimate for every two-year period. If the revenue of corporate-income and excise taxes exceeds that estimate by more than 2 percent, the additional revenue is returned to the private sector, proportional to businesses’ tax bills. The initiative would require that this additional revenue instead be directed to K-12 education.

Initiative 1240—Would allow either local school boards or a new state-level commission to approve charter schools in the state. Outgoing Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, has opposed allowing charters to begin operating in the state, but her successor could be more open to them. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Jay Inslee, opposes charters, but his Republican opponent, Rob McKenna, supports them.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

Teachers Fight Back

In Idaho, teachers are leading the effort to roll back key initiatives passed in 2011 with the backing of Republican lawmakers and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, collectively called the “Students Come First” laws by supporters.

The three laws up for repeal—in Propositions 1, 2, and 3, respectively—would strip teachers of collective bargaining rights except on salaries and benefits; establish a pay-for-performance system for teachers based on student test scores and other factors; and provide for more classroom technology, such as requiring every high school student access to a laptop computer.

But unlike in Ohio and Wisconsin, where collective bargaining rollbacks sparked fierce backlash, the highest-profile issue in Idaho could be the classroom technology at the heart of what opponents have labeled the “Luna Laws.”

Teachers in the 11,000-member Idaho Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, are upset that their salaries were reduced to pay for the technology requirement, and many feel it won’t actually help students, said Karen Echeverria, the executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association.

The school boards’ association officially supports Proposition 1, but has not taken a position on the other two ballot items. A “yes” vote is a vote to uphold the law in question.

In contrast to the technology issue, most voters don’t comprehend collective bargaining issues, said Ms. Echeverria.

Foes of the three laws are running ads saying the law that Proposition 3 seeks to repeal will be “replacing teachers with technology,” Ms. Echeverria noted, while the state Republican Party is organizing grassroots support to keep the laws.

Individual voters, meanwhile, will likely decide to support or reject all three laws as a package, she predicted.

“I think it is very partisan right now,” Ms. Echeverria said.

Like its Idaho teacher counterparts, the South Dakota Education Association, an NEA affiliate with more than 6,000 members, successfully mobilized enough public support for a popular referendum, Referred Law 16, that would repeal an education law with several components, signed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican.

Included in the law is the elimination of state-sponsored teacher tenure in 2016; the establishment of a teacher-bonus system; and the creation of a new teacher-evaluation system, half of which is based on quantitative measures.

Sandy Arseneault, the union’s president, acknowledged that the union faces an uphill battle, given the Republican control of both the legislature and the governor’s office. But she also said many voters believe the law linking a portion of teachers’ evaluations to student test scores would ultimately hurt students.

“Our new law says that we will test every student, every grade level, every year, every subject,” Ms. Arseneault said.

But Tony Venhuizen, a spokesman for Mr. Daugaard, said that the portion of new teacher evaluations requiring quantitative measures need not rely solely on test scores. He also said Mr. Daugaard was motivated to change the state’s public schools because of largely flat scores on ACT college admission and the National Assessment of Educational Progress for decades.

“The push from every level of government is to have greater accountability, greater metrics. Testing is becoming easier to administer; … this is really the way things are going at every level” he said.

Choices on Spending

Both Arizona and California have ballot items to increase education spending. But voters face a potentially complicated choice, since each state features two such items that aim to boost school aid.

In Arizona, Proposition 204 would make permanent a 1-cent sales-tax increase set to expire in 2013; the increase was originally approved through the passage of a ballot measure in 2010. Supporters of this year’s measure say public schools would receive at least $625 million in new funding in the first year the proposition takes effect.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, who chairs the committee leading the Proposition 204 push, said that when the tax increase was passed in 2010, voters supported making the increase permanent, although doing so at the time would have taken a two-thirds vote of the legislature, in the absence of another proposition placed before voters.

“It will not fully make up for what has been lost. But it prevents future cuts, and it begins the future reinvestment in eduction,” Ms. Pedersen said.

But Proposition 204’s opponents, like state Secretary of the Treasury Doug Ducey, say it would extend a regressive tax that hurts the business community, the middle class, and the working poor.

Mr. Ducey, a Republican, is supporting another education item on the ballot, Proposition 118, that he stressed has the support of both the business community and the Arizona Education Association, the state’s 31,000-member NEA affiliate. Proposition 118 would increase the flow of trust fund dollars derived from public lands in the state to public schools, by setting aside a certain percentage of those dollars for the public sector. Supporters say schools would receive $62 million next year, $10 million more than under the current formula, if Proposition 118 is approved by voters.

California Duel

In neighboring California, voters are faced with dueling ballot initiatives that would both shore up school funding.

Proposition 30 is backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. It would provide additional funding to schools by raising taxes on annual incomes of over $250,000 for the next seven years. Mr. Brown has said that the state will have to cut K-12 aid by roughly $4.8 billion in the middle of this school year if it fails, since the state’s budget assumes the proposition will pass.

Proposition 38 would also raise taxes on personal income, although the minimum income subject to a tax hike is much lower, $7,316. Proposition 38, which is backed most prominently by civil rights lawyer and activist Molly Munger.

Proposition 38, is pitched as guaranteeing that the new revenue—$10 billion annually, according to supporters—would go to classrooms, not to “Sacramento politicians.”

Recent polling by the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education shows 55 percent support for Gov. Brown’s favored proposal, although it erodes slightly when they those polled view ads for both sides related to the proposition.

Dominic Brewer, a professor and vice dean of research at the Rossier School of Education, said that while the public generally supports a school-spending hike, voters believe that waste and state mismanagement of public schools require major, nonfinancial reforms.

“They’re not expecting to see dramatically smaller classes or a lot more extracurricular activities, or arts programs being reinstated. “They [have] a very ‘let’s stop bleeding’ mentality” when it comes to school finances, Mr. Brewer said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2012 edition of Education Week as State Ballots Sport Hot-Button K-12 Issues


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