Educators and others who think their state lawmakers haven’t done enough to address school funding challenges can go to the polls this November and vote on ballot measures that would send more money to the classroom.
Several states, and some localities, have questions on the ballot focusing on school finance.
In Colorado, for example, Initiative 93 — Great Schools, Thriving Communities — would ask voters to decide whether the state constitution should increase tax rates for households earning at least $150,000 per year. Those making over $500,000 annually would see an additional 3.62% increase on their income taxes. A 1.37% corporate tax rate increase is also part of the measure.
Overall, the measure, if passed, is expected to generate $1.6 billion annually in a state where teachers rallied at the capitol in Denver for two days in April and schools closed.
In Oklahoma, where teachers were on strike for nine days, voters will decide on State Question 801, which would amend the state constitution so the school board would be able to use property tax revenue for teachers’ salaries, textbooks or other classroom costs. Currently, those funds are restricted for capital projects.
The teacher walkouts, strikes and now these ballot measures are part of the bigger picture of education spending not recovering since the recession, explains Michael Griffith, a school finance analyst with the Education Commission of the States.
“After the economy started to recover, everyone sort of thought there would be more money for education,” he said in an interview, adding that districts are saying: “These programs that you thought we were going to bring back? There’s not enough money to do it.”
In Arizona, where teachers were on strike for a week in the spring, the education community was putting its hopes in the Invest in Ed ballot measure, which would have nearly doubled the state income tax rate on individuals earning more than $250,000 ($500,000 for couples). But the Arizona Supreme Court late last month pulled the initiative from the ballot, saying that it neglected to specify that the indexing of income tax brackets to account for inflation would be ceased.
The court ruled that the omission could create significant confusion, and opponents of the measure said it would have hurt businesses. Arizona Education Association President Joseph H. Thomas wrote in a statement on the Arizona Educators United website that the association was “building plans for a statewide response.”
“Those in power think they have beaten us,” he wrote the day after the court’s decision. “Once again, they are wrong. Remember why the #RedforEd movement started. Remember who you are doing this for and keep fighting. We are all in this together, and we will see this through together.”
Turnout is hard to predict
One concern raised about the removal of the Arizona measure was that it would hurt voter turnout in general. But Griffith said turnout can be hard to predict. On one hand, the mid-term Congressional elections are likely to increase the percentages of voters going to the polls in many states, he said, but added that if the ballot is too crowded, voters might feel overwhelmed.
What’s different about this year, however, is that organizations not typically involved in education politics have been supporting teachers.
“When I go around the states,” he said, “those teacher walkouts really did wake some people up.”
In fact, this year’s Phi Delta Kappa International poll showed that more than three-fourths of public school parents would stand behind teachers if they went on strike for salary increases, and two-thirds of respondents in general say teachers in their community are paid too low.
But voters also, he said, increasingly want to know what the additional money will provide — whether that’s higher teacher salaries or an early learning program. And when lawmakers are trying to equalize funding to districts, voters are less likely to support those proposals if their districts end up losing. Their reaction might be “Why am I going to vote if my community isn’t going to get anything?” Griffith said.
Local measures also on the ballot
Other statewide school funding initiatives include a Georgia measure that would allow local districts to call for a sales tax referendum, a non-binding question in Utah on whether voters would approve a fuel tax increase to be used in part for education, and a proposal in Maryland to dedicate more gambling revenue to education programs, such as preschool, college credit courses for high school students and school infrastructure.
Many voters will also see local school funding measures on the ballot. In Florida, voters in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties will be asked to vote on salary increases for teachers, and last month, voters in Broward County approved a 6% raise.
In Wake County, N.C., a $548 million bond issue would provide for new school construction as well as renovations. A portion would also be reserved for technology, infrastructure and property management.
Even with the outpouring of support for educators, Griffith added that when voters actually have to make the decision whether to support a tax increase for schools, the numbers start to drop. That’s why when school funding measures do pass, they “tend to pass with a small percentage.”