Voters Consider Ballot Initiatives on Education

Last Updated: October 29, 2012

This article appeared in the October 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Voters in a number of states are being asked to vote on a range of ballot initiatives, many related to K–12 education. The ballot initiative enables citizens to vote directly on specific changes to state law or constitutions.

Education initiatives on the ballot this year fall into four general categories: school funding, teachers, charter schools, and tax limitations. A few states have initiatives that fall outside these categories. Language in some of the measures is confusing, even misleading. In some states competing proposals are difficult to distinguish.

Here's the RPM overview of this year's education ballot initiatives.

School funding: In Arizona, Proposition 204 would extend a 1-cent sales tax, which would provide more than $600 million for K–12 schools. Proposition 118 would increase the amount of funding transferred to schools from a state trust by $10 million.

In California, competing propositions would increase personal income taxes, but Proposition 30 would increase taxes for those making over $250,000 a year while Proposition 38 would increase taxes for those making over $7,316.

In Missouri, Proposition B would raise tobacco taxes and distribute some of the revenue to K–12 schools. And in Oregon, Measure 85 would direct receipts from corporate-income and excise taxes that exceed projections to schools rather than back to the private sector.

Charter schools: Georgia has one of the more confusing initiatives on its ballot this year. Resolution 1162 reads: "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?" But Georgia's constitution already empowers the state and local school boards to authorize charter schools. The amendment would re-create a charter school commission that was ruled unconstitutional earlier this year. That commission could place charters in communities and guarantee funding without approval of local boards or the state. 

In Washington State, which does not currently have charter school legislation, Initiative 1240 would authorize local boards or a new state commission to approve up to 40 charter schools over the next five years.

Teachers: Some of the most heated state political battles in recent years have occurred as legislatures have attempted (in some cases succeeding) to scale back teacher tenure and bargaining rights and implementing new evaluation and pay systems that tie teacher pay and job security to the test scores of their students.

The most sweeping changes, arguably, were made last year in Idaho, where the legislature dramatically curtailed tenure, ended the ability of teachers to bargain collectively on most issues and established a pay-for-performance system. It also established a student laptop program paid for in part by reductions in teacher salaries. Three separate ballot measures would repeal these laws — but only if voters cast "no" votes. A no vote on Proposition 1 would repeal the law that restricts teachers' collective bargaining rights. A no vote on Proposition 2 would end the pay-for-performance system, and a no vote on Proposition 3 would end the mandate that high school students have access to laptops. Proposition 3 is the most confusing to many voters who don't connect the program to reductions in teacher salaries.

South Dakota also passed major changes to teacher law last year when it ended teacher tenure, created a teacher evaluation system based on student test scores, and implemented a pay bonus program for teachers. Referred Law 16 would repeal those measures. In Michigan, Proposal 2 would make collective bargaining a right for public and private workers.

Tax, Revenue, or Spending Limitations: States use a variety of measures to limit taxes or funding increases for public services. Tax-related ballot initiatives are often not directly publicized as education measures, but many such measures have the effect of curtailing investment in education by capping taxes and/or limiting revenues or spending. Such measures can restrict the abilities of states and localities to respond to unforeseen financial circumstances. A variety of states have some kind of tax limitation on their ballots. Not all of these will directly impact schools, but many have that potential.

Alabama's Amendment 2 would limit general obligation bonds to no more than $750 million. Alabama covers most school construction and renovation with state general obligation bonds.

In Arizona, Proposition 116 would provide tax breaks to businesses for newly acquired equipment and Proposition 117 would limit growth in value of locally assessed properties. Florida has several tax or revenue-related initiatives, including Amendments 3, 4, 10, and 11.

In Louisiana, Amendment 8 would allow local governments to extend property tax exemptions to certain businesses. Michigan's Proposal 5 would require a two-thirds legislative vote or statewide vote to increase state taxes. New Hampshire's CACR 13 would prohibit personal income taxes. In Ohio, State Question 758 would prevent annual increases in property taxes and State Question 766 would abolish property taxes on intangible property.

Oregon's Measure 79 would ban real estate transfer taxes and Measure 84 would phase out estate and inheritance taxes. (Measure 85 could be viewed as a reversal of a revenue limitation because rather than returning revenues collected in excess of projections, that money would be directed to schools.) In Washington, Initiative 1185 would require either a two-thirds vote of the legislature or a ballot initiative to raise taxes.

Other: Several states have ballot initiatives that address something specific to the state's history or circumstance.

One of the most confusing of all ballot initiatives is Alabama's Amendment 4. This proposed amendment has been touted as removing segregationist language inserted in the state constitution in the 1950s. But critics say the new language will weaken the state's already thin education clause and could become the basis for reducing the state's commitment to public education. Several prominent advocacy groups and the Alabama Education Association are urging residents to vote "no" on this amendment.

Illinois, which has famously failed to fund its state pension systems adequately, has a ballot initiative, HJRCA 49, that would make it more difficult to increase the benefits of any pension or retirement system in the state.

Read more:

Education Week coverage:

Compilation of ballot measures:

Read more from the October 2012 Rural Policy Matters.