This year’s Educator Spring that brought teachers into the streets in massive protests has resulted in hundreds of educators running for office in November midterm elections, thrust education issues into electoral contests between Democratic and Republican candidates up and down the ballot, and pushed education-related initiatives on ballots in 16 states, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. “From taxes to bonds, governance to vouchers, education is on the ballot this November,” says the analysis. “Voters should not miss the chance to make their voices heard.”
In states such as Arizona and Georgia where gubernatorial candidates are locked in tight races and Democrats are anticipating gains in state legislatures, state ballot measures could help provide the difference between victory and defeat.
At least one study on the impact of ballot initiatives on voter turnout has found in midterm elections they can increase turnout at 7 to 9 percent in initiative states compared to non-initiative states, while turnout in presidential elections tends to be 3 to 4.5 percent higher in initiative states than in non-initiative states. Ballot measures have the power to “transform low information midterm elections to high information elections,” according to the study, and the presence of “even one initiative ballot is sufficient” to boost turnout.
School Privatization at Stake in Arizona
In what is perhaps the most-heated ballot initiative contest, in Arizona, voters will decide whether a state school voucher program providing taxpayer money for families to pay for private school tuitions will be expanded.
The massive #RedForEd teacher walkout that occurred in the state this spring resulted in a grassroots campaign to place an Invest in Education income-tax measure on the November ballot. Having that measure in the election, with the referendum to expand vouchers, was expected to bring out pro-education voters. But now that the state Supreme Court has ruled to remove the income-tax measure from the ballot, its supporters can focus their wrath on the voucher issue.
The program currently provides some 23,000 qualifying families access to Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) that give them public education funds to spend as they please for education services. About 5,000 families currently participate in the program, mostly to enroll their learning-disabled students in private schools.
An analysis of the Arizona program mainly serves wealthy families leaving high-performing public schools in wealthy districts to attend racially and economically segregated private schools. A state auditor’s office identified more than $102,000 from the program being misspent in just a 5-month period, including parents who spent program monies after enrolling children in public school, parents who did not submit required quarterly expense reports, and parents who purchased prohibited items. The report recommends the state strengthen safeguards and enforcement measures rather than expanding the program.
Nevertheless, last year the state enacted a new law expanding the program from only students with disabilities or who are enrolled in underperforming schools to all 1.1 million public school students in the state.
A petition campaign waged by grassroots groups supporting public schools successfully challenged the law expanding the voucher program, gathering enough signatures to push the law onto a ballot referendum, called Proposition 305, where a no vote would prevent expansion.
A recent poll found that Prop 305 could pass, primarily due to voter confusion about the true nature of the initiative and a disinformation campaign about the initiative funded by the billionaire Koch brothers and the organization founded by education secretary Betsy DeVos. But grassroots efforts to defeat school privatization attempts have come from behind and won in the past despite the big money campaigns they fought against.
School Funding Needs ‘Yes’ Votes in Many States
In Georgia, Amendment 5 would amend the Georgia Constitution to authorize a school district or group of school districts within a county to call for a sales and use tax referendum to fund local schools. The state funds its schools less than it did in 2008 and ranks fourth behind Arizona, Alabama, and Idaho for making the deepest cuts, 16.5 percent, to education funding.
Democratic candidate for Georgia governor Stacy Abrams has campaigned for fully funding Georgia schools and strongly backs a yes vote on Amendment 5. Abrams, who, if elected, would be the first female African American governor in America, has also received endorsements from both state and national teachers’ associations.
Her Republican opponent Brian Kemp has said little about his plans for education except for a vague pledge to raise teacher pay. Recent polls find the difference in voter approval for each candidate is “razor thin,” and a ground swell for Amendment 5 could only help Abrams over the top.
In Colorado, another state that saw a mass teacher walkout in the spring, voters have a chance to vote for increasing public school funding with a yes vote on Amendment 73 that would give a $1.6 billion boost to school funding in a state that has chronically shortchanged schools and created massive teacher shortages due to underfunding.
A yes vote on Amendment 73 would increase state income taxes for people earning more than $150,000 per year and increase the state corporate tax rate to 6 percent. These changes are estimated to generate $1.6 billion in revenue for fiscal year (FY) 2019–2020, all of which would support school funding.
Amendment 73 opponents have falsely framed the initiative, calling it a “massive tax hike” mainly to feed administrative bloat in the system. But supporters of the amendment point out that should it pass, 92 percent of Colorado taxpayers will see no impact on their state tax bill and school boards of the state’s largest school districts have already pledged the increased funds would go to vital classroom needs, including raising teacher pay, reducing class sizes, providing more mental health services, and expanding pre-k programs.
Some school funding ballot initiatives are not what they seem, which is the case in Oklahoma, where State Question 801 proposes to let schools use property tax revenue for operations in addition to paying for buildings and maintenance.
Oklahoma is another state that saw massive teacher walkouts this year to protest low teacher pay and drastic cuts to education funding, and the ballot question is a response to the walkouts placed on the ballot by outgoing Republican Governor Mary Fallin as a way to deflect criticism of the state’s negligence in funding education.
The state’s education association has come out in opposition to State Question 801 because although it provides school districts with some added flexibility it does nothing to address the matter at hand – the state’s drastic underfunding of schools. “It is a shell game,” the director of National Education Association in Oklahoma tells a local news outlet, “another gimmick.”
Grassroots opposition to Question 801 may help feed the campaign for Democratic governor nominee Drew Edmondson who is facing off against Republican candidate Kevin Stitt in what has surprisingly become a red-hot race. Edmondson forcefully opposes Question 801, saying “it would lead to inequities in funding and provide the Legislature a ‘cop out’ for school funding needs,” while Stitt favors the measure.
Education-related ballot measures aren’t confined to states that experienced teacher walkouts. Other initiatives that put education funding on the ballot include an amendment for a gas tax to support schools in Utah and a referendum in Ohio to provide extra funding for school safety.
But the ballot initiatives, wherever they occur, observed a reporter for Politico, “reflect education-related fights smoldering around the country.”