Education On The Ballot In Several States
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
November 7 isn't just about electing the next President, Congress, governors or state legislature. It is also the day Americans vote on ballot initiatives that often show what issues have priority among citizens. In at least seven states, education is on the ballot.
The initiatives range from funding sources for K-12 education to more contentious issues such as school vouchers and banning any promotion of the gay lifestyle.
Dane Waters, President of the Initiative and Referendum Institute in Washington, DC says a sound economy has made education a priority. "Citizens care about education and seem to be willing to be taxed more to fund education. In a growing period when there is a tremendous amount of surplus and extra money there are a lot of people who feel that it should be dedicated to education as a top priority of the state," he says.
But it isn't a banner year for school-related initiatives. In 1998, 14 states put education on the ballot and in the last presidential election year, 1996, 21 states had school initiatives.
Citizen-driven initiatives are an expression of disappointment in the legislature, according to Mary Fulton of the Colorado-based Education Commission of the States. "This is an avenue for trying to approve a particular action that was not taken care of by the legislature. It is more of a comment on what happened during the legislative session and how strongly people feel about the issue," Fulton says.
Waters says initiatives dealing with vouchers and bilingual education are two examples of frustration with lawmakers. He says legislators in some states have been unwilling to consider state subsidies that would let students transfer to private schools from low-performing public schools because of the clout of teacher's unions.
In fact, this year, the National Education Association (NEA), raised members dues by $5.00 to help defray the costs of ballot initiatives that deal with the schools. In 1994-96, they spent $1.7 million on state initiatives, but this year they are spending $6.2 million, according to NEA records.
California and Michigan have school choice ballot questions that, if approved, would be the first statewide programs chosen through popular referendum. Voucher initiatives have been rejected in California, Colorado, Michigan, Oregon and Washington.
"In every instance where voters determine if they want vouchers or not the voters have turned it down," said NEA President Bob Chase.
Following is a breakdown of education ballot questions:
- Arizona is considering two questions, one on bilingual education and the other on school funding. The bilingual initiative would direct schools to teach in English only and put English-As-A-Second-Language students into one-year intensive immersion programs. To fund a longer school year, smaller classes, teacher pay and school construction, the state legislature has a question on the ballot asking citizens to approve a 6/10ths of a cent increase in the sales and use tax.
- California is also trying to up the ante for school construction by changing the current need to get two-thirds of the vote to approve bonds or property tax increases that exceed 1 percent to 55 percent of the vote. The other, more contentious issue on the Golden State ballot is school choice. The initiative would provide up to $4000 to pupils who want to attend private and religious schools.
- Colorado has two initiatives to consider. One deals with funding K-12; the other focuses on financing grants for school districts to try out programs that would improve student performance on mathematics and science.
- Idaho lawmakers are asking voters to consider changing the name of the Public School Fund to the Public School Permanent Endowment Fund so that proceeds from the sale of school lands could be put into a land bank fund to buy other lands.
- Michigan's ballot debate is swirling around school choice. The constitutional amendment would allow children from failing schools to attend private or parochial schools. This state's question differs from California's because it limits the program to students in failing school districts.
- Oregon has three school related initiatives on the ballot. The first would ban any public school instruction that promotes or sanctions homosexual or bisexual behavior. Another initiative would require lawmakers to adequately fund school quality goals and the third would tie teacher salaries to student performance instead of experience.
- Washington is looking at providing a cost-of-living pay increase to school district employees for 2001-2002. It is also asking voters to direct unobligated lottery revenue to the schools for class size reductions, construction, teacher training and more academic programs. The final measure would allow school districts and public universities to sponsor charter public schools, which are exempt from most state regulations.