Law & Courts

Voters Largely Reject Funding, Policy Shifts

By David J. Hoff & Andrew Trotter — November 09, 2004 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 9 min read
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Corrected: The story misspelled the name of the president of the Washington League of Education Voters. She is Lisa Macfarlane.

Voters showed caution about sending more money to public schools or dramatically changing course on education policy, as they decided school-related questions on state ballots last week.

In Washington state, voters killed a nascent charter school law and resoundingly rejected a tax hike designed to yield a major infusion of cash for the education system. And in a closely contested Alabama campaign, it was unclear as of press time whether voters had agreed to delete Jim Crow-era language in the state constitution requiring racially segregated public schools. Critics of the change had argued that removal of some of the language marked for omission would indirectly make the state vulnerable to school finance litigation.

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Table: Ballot Measures

Voters in Oklahoma and North Carolina, meanwhile, approved measures that will open up new revenue sources for schools. But overall, efforts to increase education spending through the ballot box encountered more defeats than victories.

The tax initiative that Washington state voters defeated would have raised an estimated $1 billion a year to expand preschools, reduce K-12 class sizes, and provide new college scholarships. In Nevada, a measure designed to compel the state to spend at the national per-pupil average failed in a close vote.

Nevada voters did give the thumbs-up to a measure requiring the legislature to pass education spending legislation before funding any other area of the biennial state budget. The measure did not have a dollar figure attached to it, however. And for it to be enacted, voters must approve it again in two years.

“It was a bad day for education,” said John G. Matsusaka, the president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. By contrast, he said, voters in some states proved “perfectly willing to spend” on health care and other areas.

The education measures that succeeded featured ways to raise money without reaching directly into voters’ pocketbooks, according to another expert on the initiative process.

“It requires creative thinking,” said Jennifer D. Bowser, a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, based in Denver.

For example, the ballot question approved in Oklahoma will establish a lottery that proponents estimate will add $150 million a year to the $2 billion that the state spends on schools. In North Carolina, voters approved a constitutional amendment that will distribute revenue from civil penalties to schools, an amount that some observers estimate will be about $75 million a year.

In Maine, voters rejected a property-tax cap that opponents said would have hampered municipalities’ ability to finance schools, public safety, and other functions. But voters’ verdicts on two ballot measures in Arkansas and Missouri were seen as blows to school funding.

Again, No to Charters

Residents of Washington state turned down measures that would have made a sizable impact on schools—by allowing charter schools and by increasing funding for education by an estimated $1 billion a year. (“Education Issues Are Dominant Theme in Washington State,” Oct. 13, 2004.)

The 58 percent to 42 percent rejection of the charter school law, which the legislature had enacted last spring, is the third rebuff of the independent public schools by Evergreen State voters. Ballot initiatives to allow charter schools lost at the polls in Washington in 2000 and 1996.

Voters line up in their vehicles to drop off absentee ballots on a rainy Election Day in Vancouver, Wash.

The charter school law became subject to a referendum because the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, challenged the legislation with a petition drive. The WEA and its supporters argued the case to parents that charter schools would take money away from school districts.

Union officials said that campaigning helped turn the tide on the charter school repeal, which had initially seemed headed for failure.

“We found a big change among parents of school-aged children—those were people our members were talking to on a regular basis,” Charles Hasse, the president of the 77,000-member WEA, said after its victory last week.

Some prominent charter supporters said that voters often hesitate to make major policy changes through the ballot.

“Once again, Americans show they are uncomfortable voting directly on any issue that would dramatically change the way schools do business,” Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group, wrote in her analysis of Election Day results.

When it comes to adoption of state charter laws, “I think the legislative strategy has historically been a more successful route,” added Howard L. Fuller, the chairman of the Charter School Leadership Council, also based in the nation’s capital.

News of the closing this past summer of a large chain of charter schools in California and reports of mixed student-achievement results for such schools nationally may have played a role in Washington state residents’ resounding vote against the charter law.

Observers inside and outside the state downplayed the national significance of the vote. That hadn’t stopped money from pouring in, however, on both sides of the charter school campaign. Pro-charter forces raised some $4 million for their side, including $1 million from Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates. The National Education Association gave $500,000 to the $1 million drive against the charter law.

“I would have loved to have won,” said Jim Spady, the president of the Washington Charter School Resource Center in Seattle. A champion of charter schools in Washington state for more than a decade, he spearheaded the two previous ballot measures and was a member of the coalition advocating voter approval of the 2004 law.

The state’s high dropout rate signals “a crisis that needs to be addressed,” Mr. Spady said. “We just don’t agree on the solution.”

Sales-Tax Hike Scuttled

Washington state’s school aid measure, which lost by 61 percent to 39 percent, may have been doomed by its funding vehicle—a hike in the sales tax, which already is at 8 percent in some cities.

“I have to think the revenue source is a problem,” said Lisa McFarlane, the president of the League of Education Voters, which led the campaign for the proposed education trust fund.

“I think the [funding] initiative was viewed as a sales-tax increase rather than money for education ... in tough economic times,” said Jennifer Vranek, the executive director of Partnerships for Learning, a nonpartisan business group in the state.

Anti-tax conservatives were joined by liberals who criticized the sales tax as disproportionately burdensome to the poor, Ms. Vranek said.

The anti-tax sentiment may not be the only reason the initiative failed, said Ms. Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Another factor that may have worked against the Washington initiative was a controversy over the initiative’s title on the ballot. The title said the measure would have raised the sales tax by 1 percent. In fact, it would have increased the state sales tax by 1 percentage point, from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent. That amounts to a 15 percent increase.

Such confusion often makes undecided voters reluctant to vote yes, Ms. Bowser said. “Voters who don’t understand it or are confused tend to vote no, because that’s the safe vote,” she said.

More uncertainty may have been sown by the proposed trust fund’s broad range of beneficiaries—including preschools, public K-12 schools, and community colleges—as well as the fact that two of its purposes, to lower class sizes and raise teacher salaries, were also the goals of initiatives that were passed in 2000 but that subsequently were not funded by the legislature.

Segregation Language

In Alabama, the proposed change to the 1901 state constitution would remove obsolete language requiring segregated schools and poll taxes to pay for education. Both sections have long been legally unenforceable.

But opponents campaigned against the proposed amendment because it would remove a passage saying, in part, that nothing in the state constitution creates “any right to education or training at public expense.” That deletion might make the state vulnerable to a school finance lawsuit, the foes said.

“When you swing that door open, there is unlimited opportunity for mischief,” John Giles, the president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, said in a statement on the group’s Web site. “It’s a trial lawyer’s dream.” Advocates of the amendment were surprised that the opposition mounted enough support to produce a virtual tie in voting on Nov. 2.

“This was a symbolic vote,” said Mark Berte, the project director for the constitution-reform education campaign at the Greater Birmingham Ministries, an interfaith group. The segregation language, he noted, “has already been rendered moot by federal courts.”

Of the nearly 1.4 million votes counted on Election Day, 690,155 were against the proposed change and 687,594 were in favor—close enough to trigger an automatic recount under state law, said Judy Wagnon, a staff member in the Alabama secretary of state’s office.

The state was scheduled to count provisional and absentee ballots this week. It will conduct a recount if the difference remains less than half of 1 percent of the total, Ms. Wagnon said.

Ups and Downs for Funding

Voters in Oklahoma and North Carolina were comfortable approving plans to aid schools that wouldn’t reach into their pockets.

In addition to creating the lottery, Oklahoma voters approved ballot questions to tax Native American casinos, with the money going for schools. They also endorsed an increase in tobacco taxes to pay for health care.

“The initiatives certainly won’t address all of our funding challenges, but they are a great step forward,” Gov. Brad Henry of Oklahoma said in a statement. The Democrat had endorsed all of the initiatives.

In North Carolina, voters approved a constitutional amendment that clarifies how money from civil penalties will be distributed to schools. The state supreme court ruled earlier this year that the revenue should go to schools, but said it would go to the county where the violation occurred. Under the measure that voters approved, the money will be spread throughout the state on a per-pupil basis.

But voters in other states took significant action that could limit school funding.

Arkansas rejected the state legislature’s proposal to increase the minimum rate at which districts tax property. The rate would have risen by 3 mills—or 3 cents for every $100 in value. Advocates said the new revenue would have been important in helping the state comply with a supreme court order to improve the quality of school buildings.

In Missouri, voters decided that all money from vehicle-sales and fuel taxes should be spent on roads, a decision that educators argue will shift money away from schools. The measure will move about $190 million away from the state’s general fund, according to estimates by the Missouri National Education Association. Because education and social services total about two-thirds of state spending, those two areas will likely be hit hardest, according to the 32,000-member union.

“On the heels of three bad budget years and billions of dollars in painful cuts,” the union’s president, Greg Jung, said in a statement, “passage of Amendment 3 will deal a devastating blow.”

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