NewsEDlection 2020  

20 State and Local Ballot Measures That Could Help Shape Education, from Legalizing Marijuana to Allowing Race-Based Admissions

By Linda Jacobson | November 2, 2020

(Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images)

Supporters of three education-related ballot initiatives in California are hoping the potential for what one advocate called “record-shattering” turnout on Tuesday will give their measures a lift at the polls.

Voters in the Golden State will decide if a tax assessment formula that has been in place for more than 40 years should be amended — potentially providing more than $4 billion for public schools. They will also decide on bringing affirmative action back in college admissions and allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries.

The California measures are three of about a dozen statewide education-focused measures on the November ballot across the country on issues ranging from raises for teachers in Arizona to the future of sex education in Washington state. Proponents of tax measures are hoping that voters will look beyond the immediate economic downturn and approve long-term funding increases for public schools. Voters in multiple locations will also have an opportunity to approve new or existing early-childhood education programs.

If the pandemic hadn’t cut off signature-gathering campaigns, Americans probably would have had several more education questions to consider, said Daniel Thatcher, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures. During the 2016 presidential election, for example, there were 23 education measures.

“Many legislatures also cut their sessions short,” he said. “And when they reconvened, efforts to get some things on the ballot didn’t make it through the rush.”

‘Some significant dollars’

In California, Proposition 15 would amend Proposition 13, often blamed for the state’s school funding problems. Passed in 1978, the measure — long considered a third rail in state politics — requires both commercial and residential properties to be taxed based on their purchase price. That restriction forces schools to rely more on state funds, especially income taxes, which can be less stable. Proposition 15 would create what is known as a split roll in which taxes on commercial and industrial properties valued at over $3 million would be assessed at market value.

(Getty Images)

In a state where per-student spending is consistently below the national average and half of what New York spends, the measure would “provide some significant dollars” for schools, said Ted Lempert, a former state assemblyman and president of Children Now, an advocacy organization. The measure has been slipping in recent polls, but if it passes, it could initially help districts implement hybrid attendance plans, in which some students attend school in the building and others continue distance learning, and eventually increase staff-to-student ratios.

“We rank near the bottom in counselors and nurses,” Lempert said, adding that when schools have support personnel, in addition to teachers, students can be more successful.

Opponents of Proposition 15 argue it’s a terrible time for a tax increase given the pandemic and the recession, and cite it is another example of the state creating an unfriendly climate for business owners.

Proposition 16 asks voters to repeal a measure they approved in 1996 that prohibited governments and public institutions, including colleges and universities, from considering race and sex in admissions and contract decisions. Coming amid national attention to racial equity issues, the measure has support from voters, Lempert said, but added that they’re also confused “because the voters themselves” approved the ban in the first place.

Without affirmative action, Lempert said, schools have less information to make admissions decisions, especially since the state is no longer requiring applicants to submit entrance exam scores.

“There’s a huge equity divide at college entrance,” he said.

Some opponents argue, as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Harvard University have, that reinstating affirmative action would hurt Asian students, While the California legislature didn’t place the measure on the ballot until the summer, Lempert said it’s not impossible that “record-shattering” voter turnout could lead to the measure’s approval.

From left, Adrianna Zhang, Norman Yee, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and Sarah Ginsburg posted signs in support of the city’s Proposition G, which would allow 16-year-olds to vote in local elections. (Adrianna Zheng)

Finally, voters will decide whether to join 18 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries and special elections if they will turn 18 by the general election. San Francisco voters will decide whether to take the youth vote a step further, allowing those who are 16 to have a say in local elections. Supporters of the measure say it will help instill voting as a habit.

“Youth are getting involved in such new ways because of the pandemic,” said Adrianna Zhang, a junior at Lowell High School in San Francisco who also serves on the city’s Youth Commission. A similar measure was defeated in 2016, but received 48 percent of the vote. Zheng thinks this time it will pass. “We’ve garnered so much more support. There are so many more volunteers who are phone banking,” she said.

Universal pre-K in Colorado

In Colorado, Proposition EE is one measure that made it through the legislative rush. The proposed tax on tobacco and vaping products is predicted to bring $87 million into the general fund, increasing to $276 million by 2027. In the first two years, the revenue would offset some of the budget cuts in education resulting from COVID-19. But in 2023, it would be directed toward a new universal pre-K program, a priority for Gov. Jared Polis.

The measure was originally a citizens’ initiative, but the legislature gave it a bipartisan boost when advocates had to stop gathering signatures.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) discusses teen vaping with local high school students and faculty, at South High School in Denver, Colorado. (The Denver Post / Getty Images)

“Coloradans are horrified by our youth vaping rate,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, an advocacy organization. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado youth vape at twice the national average. The state currently has no tax on e-cigarettes.

Jaeger said it hasn’t been difficult for lawmakers, or the public, to “connect the dots” between creating disincentives to vape and expanding preschool. Passing the measure would tackle “something that negatively affects our youth and create opportunities for our youngest learners,” he said.

The state’s current pre-K program serves about 14,800 children and is targeted toward low-income families and children with other risk factors, such as homelessness. Under the new model, all 4-year-olds would be eligible to attend, but additional revenue would be spent in communities with greater needs.

Opponents of the measure argue that the initiative’s wording doesn’t ensure the revenue will be spent on pre-K and that the pandemic makes this a bad year for a tax increase. Jaeger noted that several other ballot measures at the state and local levels are vying for voters’ attention.

Arizona’s #InvestinEd

In Arizona, Proposition 208 — which would help fund education with.5 percent surcharge on annual income over $250,000 — has had a rocky journey to the ballot. Sponsors placed it before voters in 2018, but the state Supreme Court kicked it off, ruling that the description of the “tax burden” was unclear.

The proposal ended up before a Maricopa Superior Court judge again this year, but ultimately the state Supreme Court allowed the measure to remain on the ballot.

The tax, if approved, is expected to bring in over $900 million annually — half of which would go toward salary increases for teachers. School support staff, career and technical education programs, and mentoring efforts for educators would also see a portion of the revenue. The latest poll shows the measure winning with 56 percent of the vote. In this case, opponents say their chiefly against the size, rather than merely the timing, of the tax increase.

“You would not expect the biz community to get behind something like this in any year,” said Garrick Taylor, the senior vice president of government relations and communications for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “It is a dramatic income tax increase.”

Ballots are pulled aside for a hand audit by Maricopa County Elections Department staff on Oct. 31, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona. (Courtney Pedroza / Getty Images)

The measure, he said, would hurt small businesses, which are charged personal income tax rates. And proponents, he said, can’t argue that the legislature or the governor “have somehow been sitting on their hands.”

Following a statewide teacher strike in 2018, teachers received an average 20 percent salary increase — the last installment of which went into effect this school year. But proponents say the state still has a teacher shortage and higher class sizes than most. Recent reports show that schools have only been able to fill about a quarter of their vacant positions this fall, and according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the student-teacher ratio in Arizona is among the highest in the country, almost 24:1.

Below are some of the other school-related ballot measures facing voters Nov. 3:

Alabama

Amendment 4: Alabama’s constitution — last revised in 1901 — contains some lingering school segregation language that Amendment 4 would authorize the legislature to remove when it meets again in 2022. For example, one article still reads: “Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.” While the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawed such a provision, the state in 1956 passed Amendment 111 saying that nothing in the law “shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense.”

In 2004, voters rejected the opportunity to remove the racial language as well as the statement about not having a right to a public education. Another effort failed in 2012, but that time the state teachers association opposed the measure because it didn’t remove Amendment 111. If the measure passes this time around, the revised document would still need to be approved by voters in a referendum.

Colorado

Amendment B: Colorado voters will decide whether to repeal what is known as the Gallagher Amendment, a formula that sets across-the-board limits on funding for the state and local governments: 45 percent comes from residential property taxes , compared with 55 percent from taxes on commercial property. Because housing has grown substantially in the state, the formula “is not representative of the reality on the ground,” said Thatcher, from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Proponents say repealing the amendment would create more stable funding for education, and that keeping the formula in place could result in a $490 million drop in funding for schools in 2021. Opponents argue the limit protects homeowners, but agree that a more regional approach makes sense.

Proposition 116: Voters in Colorado will also decide whether to lower the state income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 4.55 percent, which would also impact funding for education. Individuals earning $50,000 per year would save $40, and approval of the measure is expected to reduce general fund revenues by $203 million in the current fiscal year and $154 million next year.

Florida

Amendment 1: The proposal seeks to change the wording in the state constitution to read that “only a citizen” of the U.S. who is at least 18 years old, is registered, and is a permanent resident of the state can vote. It currently states that “every citizen” can vote. Proponents argue that the change is needed because the law doesn’t specify who can’t vote. Opponents of the measure, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, say the change isn’t necessary and could lead to voter suppression.

Election workers set up voting booths at an early voting site in Orlando, Florida. (Paul Hennessy / Getty Images)

Maryland

Question 2: Maryland voters will decide whether to approve sports betting to help fund public schools. If the measure passes, the state would join 23 others that allow commercial gaming. Annual revenues for education from this measure are estimated at about $20 million. The measure is expected to pass.

New Mexico

Bond Question B: If approved, a $9.7 million bond would include funding for school libraries.

Bond Question C: A yes vote would approve $156.3 million in bonds for capital improvements to education facilities, including tribal schools and special schools for students who are visually and hearing impaired.

South Dakota 

Amendment A: South Dakota voters are being asked whether the state should legalize recreational marijuana and tax it at 15 percent. A portion of the revenue — projected to bring in $60 million a year by 2024 — would be used to regulate the industry, while half of the remaining funds would be spent on public schools. Proponents call the measure a sensible response to adult marijuana use and say approving it would create jobs.

Opponents, including many business groups, argue that they would no longer be able to use a failed drug test as a reason not to hire someone and that legalization would make marijuana more accessible to minors.

Utah

Amendment G: Under current law, the state can only use income tax revenue to fund education. The Utah legislature wants to expand that definition to include other programs for children and people with disabilities. Approval of the measure would trigger legislation that allows the state to dip into other sources of revenue to make up for declines in tax revenue for education. Education organizations support the measure, but some argue that the amendment does not guarantee future funding and could lead to an initial loss of school funding.

Washington

Referendum 90: Curriculum-related debates aren’t usually decided at the polls. But a controversial measure on Washington’s ballot allows voters to decide whether a bill establishing a comprehensive sex education program will go into effect. Opponents of the program, Parents for Safe Schools, organized to get the referendum on the ballot as a way to stop the law’s implementation. They argue the curriculum materials are graphic and promote “early sexualization” of children, and that local school boards should have a say in such decisions. Supporters argue the lessons are age-appropriate and will teach students about informed consent.

Local early education measures

Initiatives in three communities focus on early education — St. Louis, San Antonio and Multnomah County, Oregon, which includes Portland.

Multnomah residents will vote on a tax increase that would create a Preschool for All program for 3- and 4-year-olds, offering families a choice of part-day or full-day classes and requiring educators to earn as much as kindergarten teachers. The tax increase for Measure 26-214 would apply to individuals earning at least $125,000 and households earning $200,000 or more.

In St. Louis, however, the route to expanding early-childhood programs is less direct. Proposition R asks for a property tax increase that would raise roughly $2.3 million annually for the city’s Mental Health Board, which could add a preschool initiative as a prevention effort.

Finally, voters in San Antonio will decide whether to continue an eighth of a percent sales tax to fund Pre-K 4 SA. About 2,000 children per year attend the program at six locations. An evaluation released last year by West at, a research organization, concluded that the “societal benefits” outweigh the $6,800-per-child cost of the program by almost $3,800. Participating children had better attendance, higher test scores, and were less likely to repeat a grade and be referred to special education than similar children who didn’t participate.

Cleveland school taxes

The Cleveland Municipal School District is asking voters to renew a property tax levy — and increase the rate for another 10 years — to continue funding devices and internet service for every student, train teachers for virtual instruction, and provide counseling and social services. If Issue 68 doesn’t pass, the district would lose $66 million a year, which CEO Eric Gordon said would hinder progress the district has made in recent years.

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