On Tuesday, Americans will go to the polls and vote for the next president of the United States. But they will also have a chance to weigh in on numerous ballot initiatives to reform public education in their states.
Massachusetts, California, Georgia, and Louisiana voters all face major decisions on education policy this week — including who gets to decide to raise tuition, whether their state should take over management of low-performing schools, and a proposal to improve access to bilingual education.
Charter school expansion
Massachusetts voters will have the opportunity to vote for or against charter school expansion in the state. The ballot measure, called Question 2, would allow as many as 12 new independent charter schools to be authorized each year or allow for greater enrollment at existing charter schools.
A survey released from WBUR two weeks ago shows that 64 percent of Democratic voters oppose the measure. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) Boston Mayor Martin Walsh (D), and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) have all stated their opposition to an expansion of charter schools.
“Wall Street must not be allowed to hijack public education in Massachusetts. This is Wall Street’s attempt to line their own pockets while draining resources away from public education at the expense of low-income, special education students and English language learners,” Sanders said in a statement on Question 2.
Sanders’ statements on charter school expansion reflect a wider sentiment among many teachers and parents of students in public schools, which is that charter school proponents are moneyed outsiders who don’t care about the well-being of traditional public schools.
A Brookings Institution report found that Massachusetts charter schools in urban areas showed very large test score gains. The report also noted that students in rural and suburban charter schools do the same or worse as peers in traditional public schools, but that the charter cap doesn’t affect schools in these areas.
When it comes to the question of whether charter schools are draining money from traditional public schools, the answer is complicated. Rachel Cohen offers a nuanced assessment of all of the factors at play in this June article in The American Prospect. The research on this topic has been limited, but two education policy experts wrote a 2014 paper on how charter school expansions affects traditional public school budgets.
The paper focused on Buffalo and Albany and found that charter school expansion did negatively affect school districts, in part because of uncertainties about enrollment and an increase in maintenance costs since more school buildings are being used. Better coordination between charters, traditional public schools, and the state could lessen the financial strain, however, the authors said.
A lot of money has been spent on both sides of the debate. According to WBUR, the National Education Association, Massachusetts Teacher Association and the national and local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers paid for the $13.4 million No on 2 campaign. For the campaign to vote yes on Question 2, $13.6 million came from Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter nonprofit, $1.8 million came from Jim and Alice Walton, $2 million came from private donations, and $1.2 million came from “dark money” or intermediary nonprofits which have no obligation to disclose donors.
A state takeover of low-performing schools
Georgia is considering a referendum that would create an “Opportunity School District” for the state’s lowest performing schools. This district would be run by a superintendent appointed by the governor. The district would include up to 100 schools and 150 schools are eligible. These schools would have to remain under state control for at least five years.
Gov. Nathan Deal (R) has made this measure a top priority. “The irony of some of the groups who are opposing doing something to help these minority children is beyond my logic. If you want to advance the state of colored people, start with their children,” he said in support of the amendment.
Deal hasn’t really apologized for using the term colored people and insisted he was referring to the NAACP.
The NAACP, school boards, Parent Teachers Association, and teachers have argued that the approach would be harmful to students and is simply an attempt from the governor to wrest power from school districts and local school boards. The opportunity school district is modeled after Louisiana’s, which controls over 100 of New Orleans’ lowest performing schools. These schools are run by charter management organizations. Opponents say that there is more accountability in locally run schools, that the schools could receive less funding, and that the plan doesn’t address the larger affects of poverty on students’ academic performance. Proponents argue that local school boards have had a chance to improve schools and haven’t delivered.
The National Education Association has spent almost $5 million opposing the proposed state takeover, while the committee trying to pass the constitutional amendment has raised $2.6 million. The Walton family and Georgia Leads, a pro-Deal dark money group, have also spent money supporting the opportunity school district referendum.
An October Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found that almost 60 percent of voters would oppose the amendment, including a majority of Republicans.
More access to bilingual education
California voters will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot initiative, called Proposition 58, that would allow many more students to receive bilingual instruction. This measure has the chance to affect the 23 percent of public school students in the state who are English language learners.
Almost 20 years ago, California voters passed a separate ballot initiative called Proposition 227 that required all public education in the state to be taught in English. This requirement can only be waived if parents jump through hoops to prove their child requires a bilingual education because they would learn English faster this way, have special needs, or already know English. Many opponents of Prop 227 called it xenophobic.
If the new measure is approved, the decision to expand bilingual education would still be under the control of local school districts.
Bilingual education has been shown to benefit English language learners academically and linguistically in the long term. There’s some evidence that those who receive a bilingual education may also earn more money and receive additional cognitive benefits.
University power over tuition hikes
Louisiana voters will have to decide whether they want to allow colleges and universities to make their own judgment calls on tuition hikes this week. Universities and colleges would have the authority to decide on how much to raise tuition and fees by 2019 if the measure passes.
This isn’t a carte blanche offer to universities, however. Institutions of higher education would still have to meet certain standards in order to have that power, such as graduation rates equal to or better than peer universities and colleges and there would still be a tuition cap that meets the average tuition and fees of peer institutions.
Although some university and college administrators argue that the constitutional amendment is needed at a time when they say budgets are slim, students — and even some professors — argue that universities shouldn’t have that much control over tuition.
“If left up to the management boards, tuition increases will likely be out of control,” Louisiana State University professor and chancellor emeritus James H. Wharton wrote in The Advocate. “There is no justification for giving the institutions ultimate control of tuition as is done by constitutional amendment number 2.”
“Passing this constitutional amendment would give our elected officials a cop-out for higher education funding. Why increase or stabilize revenue for higher education when schools can just let students pick up the tab?” LSU student Cody Sibley wrote in the university’s student newspaper.
How to fund education
Several states are looking into new ways to fund public education or improve funding of public education. In Missouri, Constitutional Amendment 3 would provide around $300 million each year to early education anti-smoking efforts through a cigarette tax increase. And in Maine, voters will decide whether to approve a 3 percent income tax surcharge for those making more than $200,000 in order to fund public education.
Oregon and Alaska, meanwhile, both have measures on the ballot that could help ensure students have access to higher education and are able to stay in college once they are accepted.
Oregonians are considering a question that would force state lawmakers to fund high school programs that ensure students are college and career ready and prevent students from dropping out. There hasn’t been an organized effort against the measure, OregonLive.com reported. Alaskans will vote on whether the state can sell bonds in order to fund its student loan program, which is offered to students who aren’t eligible for state financial aid. If Alaskans vote yes, the interest rate for these loans could be lowered by 0.97 percent, Juneau Empire reported.