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From ESA Expansion to School Safety Bonds: The 12 Education Ballot Questions Voters Will Consider on Nov. 6

By Carolyn Phenicie | October 19, 2018

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Update, Oct. 24: The Hawaii Supreme Court threw out a ballot question on raising taxes on investment properties to fund education, saying it wasn’t worded clearly. 

EDlection 2018: From coast to coast, The 74 is profiling a new education-oriented campaign each week. See all our recent profiles, previews, and reactions at The74Million.org/Election (and watch for our Election Night live blog Nov. 6)

Beyond the races for governor, superintendent, and legislatures that will help direct state school policy for the next four years, voters in 12 states will decide on education-related issues ranging from funding to rights for transgender people.

Ballot initiatives in recent elections have had big impacts on K-12 education.

In 2016, California voters overturned a decades-old ban on bilingual education and Oregon opted to boost spending to turn around dismal high school graduation rates. Voters in Massachusetts, meanwhile, decided not to lift a cap on charter schools, and those in Georgia didn’t authorize a state takeover of failing schools.

Such initiatives are frequently used to increase taxes or float bonds for school spending.

In 2016, voters took opposing stances on a range of education funding questions on the ballot. Voters in California and Maine agreed to raise income taxes to fund education, and citizens of New Mexico and California voted to float bonds for school facilities. But Oregon, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Missouri residents rejected new taxes on sales, tobacco, and corporate income to raise funds for different education programs.

Historically, ballot initiatives to raise taxes haven’t been any more successful than legislative efforts to do so, said Matt Richmond, chief program officer at EdBuild, a group focused on reforming school funding systems.

“It’s not like people enjoy increasing their taxes just because they’re the ones who got to make that decision,” he said.

Local initiatives to raise property taxes or float bonds for school construction, though, are usually more successful, because voters find them to be less technical and can more easily see how the money will be used, he added.

Here are the 12 education-related ballot questions voters will decide on Nov. 6:

The Big Questions

Arizona Education Savings Accounts: Voters will consider whether to strike down a law that would expand the state’s already-robust education savings account program to all students. It would be the first universal ESA program in the country to go into effect. (Nevada’s, which passed first, is on hold following a court challenge.)

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Education savings accounts, which families can use to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, homeschool curriculum, or other services, are the school choice program du jour, as proponents tout their wide variety of uses. ESA bills are often written in ways that make them less susceptible to legal challenges on the basis of illegal state support for religious instruction, because parents make the ultimate call on how the money is used, and funds can go to other constitutionally appropriate expenses.

A poll by the Arizona Republic in early October found that 41 percent of respondents supported the universal ESA program, with 32 percent opposed and 27 percent undecided. But many voters contacted after taking the poll said the language of the question was confusing; in the poll, more Democrats than Republicans supported the expansion, the exact opposite of traditional party positions and the legislature’s vote when it approved the measure in 2017.

South Carolina Superintendent: Voters will consider whether to make the state superintendent of education a position appointed by the governor, rather than elected, as it is now.

Advocates say the change will make the governor more directly responsible for education, reduce possible friction between leaders of different ideologies, and open the pool to qualified candidates unwilling to mount a statewide campaign.

Opponents, primarily the state’s teachers union, say South Carolina needs an independent voice on education who is accountable to the public.

Making the change would put South Carolina in line with more than three dozen states where superintendents are appointed, either by governors or state boards of education.

Related

South Carolina Voters Will Soon Elect State K-12 Chief — and Decide If They Should Never Do It Again

Other Key Initiatives

Massachusetts: Lawmakers in 2016 passed a law banning discrimination against transgender people, including guaranteeing access to restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. Voters will consider whether to uphold that law. A separate law guarantees protections for transgender students at school, but transgender children would lose protections in other public accommodations if the law were overturned.

“It’s about me having the right to go to a restaurant, go shopping, get a coffee, the day-to-day things. I am nervous that the laws will be taken away and my protections will be taken away,” 16-year-old Nicole Talbot said in a video for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights group.

The opponents who petitioned to place the question on the ballot argue that it puts women and girls at risk, because anyone “regardless of intention or anatomy” can be there at any time, according to the group Keep Massachusetts Safe. (At least one study has found no link in Massachusetts between crimes committed in bathrooms and the state’s transgender protections.)

A yes vote upholds the 2016 law. More than 70 percent of voters in two recent surveys said they’d vote to uphold the law.

Oregon: Voters will consider whether to overturn the state’s 30-year-old “sanctuary state” law that prohibits the use of state resources for “detecting or apprehending” people whose only suspected crime is violation of federal immigration laws.

Supporters of overturning the sanctuary state provision say it would allow cooperation with federal law enforcement to better keep Oregonians safe and follow the rule of law, arguments the Trump administration has pursued in its efforts to end sanctuary cities as part of a broader immigration crackdown. Opponents of the change say it could lead to racial profiling and make immigrants less likely to report crimes and testify in court.

A decades-old Supreme Court decision guarantees all children in the U.S. a right to a public K-12 education regardless of immigration status. Civil rights groups have urged Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to clarify her comments at a hearing earlier this year that reporting undocumented students to law enforcement was a “local decision.”

Undocumented students have been arrested after allegedly being reported by school authorities in New York and Boston at least, as have undocumented parents outside schools in California.

Funding Questions in Brief

Most of the education questions voters will face focus on funding, from general income tax hikes to bonds for specific projects.

Colorado: Whether to raise income taxes on corporations and people making over $150,000 a year, with an estimated $1.6 billion a year going to pre-K–12 education.

Georgia: Whether the largest school district in a county with multiple districts may call for a referendum on a new sales tax without the agreement of the other districts in the county.

Maryland: Whether to prohibit lawmakers from using tax revenue from casinos for anything other than K-12 education expenses. Gambling brings in about $517 million annually, and that money would have to be exclusively devoted to education by July 1, 2022, the Baltimore Sun reported.

New Mexico: Whether to float several bonds, including one of just over $6 million, to buy school buses and equip them with air conditioning, and a larger one mostly for improvements at colleges. The larger bond also includes $2.7 million for repairs at the Santa Fe Indian School and New Mexico School for the Deaf.

New Jersey: Whether to float a $500 million bond to pay for school safety, expanded vocational education, and upgrades to school water systems to protect from lead.

Oklahoma: Whether school districts may use existing property tax revenue to pay for classroom expenses, in addition to school facilities, as it is typically used now.

Rhode Island: Whether to float a $250 million bond to improve school facilities.

Utah: Non-binding poll of whether to raise the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon. The results will guide legislators as they consider whether to allow that revenue, roughly $180 million, to be used for transportation projects. An equivalent amount that currently comes from general fund revenues would be used for education instead.

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