From ESA Expansion to School Safety Bonds: The 12 Education Ballot Questions Voters Will Consider on Nov. 6
Update, October 24: The Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated a ballot question regarding the increase of taxes on investment properties to support education due to its lack of clarity.
EDlection 2018: Throughout the nation, is featuring a new campaign focused on education each week. Discover all our recent profiles, previews, and responses at The74Million.org/Election (and stay tuned for our Election Night live blog on November 6th).
In addition to the races for governor, superintendent, and legislatures, which will shape state education policies for the next four years, voters in 12 states will also have the opportunity to decide on various education-related issues, ranging from funding to transgender rights.
Ballot initiatives in previous elections have had significant impacts on K-12 education. For example, in 2016, California voters overturned a long-standing ban on bilingual education, and Oregon allocated more funding to improve high school graduation rates. Conversely, voters in Massachusetts chose not to lift a cap on charter schools, and those in Georgia did not authorize a state takeover of failing schools.
These initiatives often involve increasing taxes or issuing bonds to support educational expenses. In 2016, voters expressed differing opinions on education funding questions on the ballot. Californians and Mainers agreed to raise income taxes for education, while citizens of New Mexico and California voted in favor of issuing bonds for school facilities. However, residents of Oregon, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Missouri rejected new taxes on sales, tobacco, and corporate income to generate funds for various education programs.
According to Matt Richmond, the Chief Program Officer at EdBuild, a group focused on reforming school funding systems, historically, ballot initiatives to raise taxes have not been more successful than legislative efforts to do so. He stated, "It’s not like people enjoy increasing their taxes just because they’re the ones who got to make that decision." On the other hand, local initiatives to raise property taxes or issue bonds for school construction tend to have higher success rates because voters find them less complex and are able to easily understand how the money will be utilized.
On November 6th, voters will have the opportunity to decide on the following 12 education-related ballot questions:
The Major Questions
Arizona Education Savings Accounts: Voters will determine whether to repeal a law that aims to expand the state’s already substantial education savings account program to all students. If passed, this would be the first universal ESA program in the country, although Nevada’s program, which was the first to pass, is currently on hold due to a court challenge.
Related: Arizona has been a testing ground for education reformers for a long time. Now, teachers may lead a backlash against Republicans in an election year.
Education savings accounts allow families to use funds for private school tuition, tutoring, homeschooling materials, or other services. These accounts are widely supported by school choice advocates due to their versatility. ESA bills are often formulated in ways that minimize legal challenges regarding the use of public funds for religious instruction, as parents have the final say on how the money is spent, which can be allocated to constitutionally appropriate expenses.
A poll conducted by the Arizona Republic in early October revealed that 41 percent of respondents supported the universal ESA program, while 32 percent were opposed, and 27 percent remained undecided. However, many voters found the question confusing, and after being contacted after the poll, expressed differing opinions. Interestingly, more Democrats than Republicans supported the expansion in the poll, contrary to traditional party positions and the legislature’s vote on the measure in 2017.
South Carolina Superintendent: Voters will decide whether to change the current system where the state superintendent of education is elected and instead have the position appointed by the governor.
Advocates argue that this change will make the governor directly accountable for education, reduce potential conflicts between leaders with differing ideologies, and attract qualified candidates who are unwilling to run a statewide campaign. Opponents, primarily the state’s teachers union, believe that South Carolina needs an independent voice on education who is answerable to the public.
If the change is implemented, South Carolina will join more than three dozen states where superintendents are appointed by either the governor or state boards of education.
Related: South Carolina voters will soon elect a state K-12 chief and decide whether this should be repeated in the future.
Other Key Initiatives
Massachusetts: In 2016, lawmakers passed a law prohibiting discrimination against transgender individuals, which includes ensuring access to restrooms and changing facilities that correspond to their gender identity. Voters will decide whether to uphold this law. If the law is overturned, transgender students will retain protections in schools but lose them in other public accommodations.
Those who have opposed the inclusion of the question on the ballot argue that it poses a threat to the safety of women and girls, as anyone, regardless of their intentions or physical characteristics, can access these spaces at any time. However, it is worth noting that at least one study conducted in Massachusetts has found no evidence of a connection between crimes committed in bathrooms and the state’s protections for transgender individuals.
A vote in favor of the measure would uphold the law that was enacted in 2016. Recent surveys have indicated that over 70 percent of voters support maintaining this law.
In Oregon, voters will have the opportunity to decide whether to overturn the state’s longstanding "sanctuary state" law, which prohibits the use of state resources to detect or apprehend individuals suspected only of violating federal immigration laws. Supporters of overturning this provision argue that it would enable better cooperation with federal law enforcement, thereby enhancing the safety of Oregon residents and ensuring compliance with the rule of law. Similar arguments have been put forth by the Trump administration to justify their efforts to crack down on sanctuary cities as part of a broader immigration enforcement strategy. However, opponents of this change contend that it could lead to racial profiling and make immigrants less willing to report crimes or testify in court.
A Supreme Court decision made several decades ago guarantees every child in the United States, regardless of their immigration status, the right to a public K-12 education. Civil rights organizations have urged Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to provide clarification on her previous statement during a hearing earlier this year, in which she referred to reporting undocumented students to law enforcement as a "local decision." Instances have been reported in which undocumented students and parents have been arrested after being reported by authorities in New York, Boston, and California.
When it comes to education, most of the questions that voters will encounter pertain to funding. These range from proposals for general income tax increases to bonds specifically designated for certain projects.
In Colorado, voters will decide whether to raise income taxes for corporations and individuals earning over $150,000 per year, with the estimated $1.6 billion in annual revenue going towards pre-K-12 education.
Georgia voters will determine whether the largest school district in a county with multiple districts can call for a referendum on a new sales tax without the consent of the other districts within the county.
Maryland voters will consider whether to restrict lawmakers from using tax revenue from casinos for anything other than K-12 education expenses. Gambling generates around $517 million in revenue annually, and if the measure passes, this money would be exclusively allocated to education by July 1, 2022.
In New Mexico, voters will decide on various bonds, including one worth just over $6 million for the purchase of school buses equipped with air conditioning, as well as a larger bond primarily dedicated to college improvements. This larger bond also includes $2.7 million for repairs at the Santa Fe Indian School and the New Mexico School for the Deaf.
New Jersey voters will determine whether to issue a $500 million bond to finance school safety enhancements, expanded vocational education, and upgrades to school water systems in order to prevent lead contamination.
Oklahoma voters will decide on whether school districts can utilize existing property tax revenue to cover classroom expenses in addition to school facilities, as is currently customary.
Rhode Island voters will have the chance to approve a $250 million bond to improve school facilities.
In Utah, there will be a non-binding poll on whether to increase the gas tax by 10 cents per gallon. The results of this poll will inform legislators as they consider whether to allocate the roughly $180 million in additional revenue for transportation projects. An equivalent amount currently obtained from general fund revenues would be redirected to education instead.