Election Day Brings Lots of State Ballot Measures on Education

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Despite little discussion of education issues in the presidential campaign, education was actually quite a hot topic in a number of states, with ballot measures in 38 states. The results were a mixed bag for education reform. It will likely take time to decipher what it all means for low-income students and students of color. 

Maryland voters passed the first state level DREAM Act through a ballot initiative. Other states, through their legislatures, have enacted similar laws, but the Maryland act marks the first time the measure had been put to the popular vote. As of press time, Question 4, as it was known, was winning 59 percent to 41 percent — a definitive statement on allowing certain undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities, provided they attend Maryland high schools for at least three years and meet other conditions. 

On the opposite coast, California passed Proposition 30, which temporarily increases state sales tax and increases income taxes on the wealthy by about 1 to 3 percent. Most of the revenue from these tax increases is earmarked for education, which is critical because California’s schools have suffered severe funding shortages in the last couple of years. A competing tax measure, Proposition 38, failed. Florida similarly protected its education funding by rejecting a measure, Amendment 3, which would have limited the state’s ability to raise revenue. But Arizona and Missouri rejected measures to increase sales and tobacco taxes, respectively, which would have created additional revenue for schools.

Moving to the middle of the country, Michigan rejected two ballot measures related to education. Proposition 2 would have provided public and private sector employees — including teachers — with a state constitutional right to bargain collectively. Proposition 5 would have required a two-thirds majority of the legislature to approve any tax increase. Proposition 2 would have been a fairly radical step —  enshrining the right to collective bargaining in a state constitution rather than in statute. Had Proposition 5 passed, it would have been nearly impossible to raise additional revenue for education. 

Georgia and Washington both had charter school provisions on the ballot. Georgia’s provision, which passed, amends the state constitution to allow for the creation of a state commission that can authorize charter schools. Washington’s measure, Initiative 1240, will allow the creation of up to 40 charters in the next five years. Although it’s still too close to call in Washington, the measure appears likely to pass.

In Idaho, it appears that three measures supported by Superintendent Tom Luna are likely to fail. According to Ed Week’s State Ed Watch, the measures would have “instituted merit pay, restricted collective bargaining, and mandated more technology in classrooms.” The collective bargaining element also would have banned seniority considerations in teacher layoffs, and the merit pay proposal would have awarded bonuses to schools in the top 50 percent of performance on annual state assessments. 

There were no ballot measures to speak of in Indiana, but in a surprising  outcome, State Superintendent of Education Tony Bennett lost to Glenda Ritz. During his time as superintendent, Bennett moved a number of reform measures, including limiting the use of seniority in layoffs, instituting evaluations that included student growth as a component, and implementing state takeover of struggling schools. But he also moved his agenda in a fairly heavy handed way, making him a more enticing electoral target for non-reformers. 

Given the range of issues covered by the states’ ballot initiatives, it is hard to discern many overarching trends, but a few stand out. The first is something of a common sense lesson — how you deal with people and communities when making big changes matters. In both Indiana and Idaho, the losses seem to have more to do with the personalities involved in the fights than the issues on the table. The second lesson is that, in this tight fiscal time, people are leery of limiting their state’s ability to raise revenue. They may not want to expand that ability, but neither do they seem interested in constraining it. 

The third and final lesson seems to be that when children’s interests are put in the forefront, measures win. Maryland passed the DREAM Act and it looks like Georgia and Washington are going to increase options for students. 

As we wrap up this election and move forward into 2013, we should heed those lessons — it’s time to put the elections behind us, come together, and redouble our efforts for all children by closing gaps in opportunity and achievement.