Voters across the country on Tuesday made ballot decisions to help fund public schools, which are increasingly starved for resources. Most of them were successful, with six education initiatives passing overall, in places like Seattle, Washington; Georgia; Maryland; Montana; and two in the state of Maine.
Four education initiatives were defeated in Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah.
Education funding has dropped drastically in recent years. Twenty-nine states were providing less total school funding per student in 2015 than in 2008, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. In 19 states, local government funding also fell. In more than half of the states in the United States, the poorest districts — districts with the highest rates of poverty — get $1,000 less per pupil in state and local funding than districts with the lowest poverty rates, according to The Education Trust.
The fact that education initiatives were on the ballot at all in several states, then, is at least a step in the right direction.
Colorado rejects tax on corporations and the wealthy
In Colorado, voters said “no” to Amendment 73, which would have raised the corporate tax rate and personal income tax rate on those earning more than $150,000 a year. According to the Denver Post, the money would would have gone to an education fund that is distributed directly to districts that need help with things like mental health programs and attracting qualified teachers. Supporters of Amendment 73 said it would have provided $1.6 billion a year for school funding.
Colorado teachers’ had an average annual salary of $51,233 in 2016 according to a National Education Association report released in 2017, a bit lower than the average public school teacher salary, which was $58,353 for the 2015-2016 school year. Although Colorado is the 12th richest state in the United States, it ranks fairly low in terms of its education spending. It ranked 42 in spending on public education, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis released in February and No. 39 in per pupil spending according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Gallagher Amendment has also been a hurdle for school districts since it was written into the state constitution in 1982. A legislative committee is currently assessing the financial impact of the amendment, which ensures that residential and nonresidential property tax revenues are kept at a 45 percent to 55 percent ratio. School districts have suffered because of it, since there is a limit on the revenue they can raise.
“As our communities are struggling with less local revenue coming in, it adds a huge burden to the state budget so the state tries to backfill,” Susan Meek with Great Education Colorado told KMGH in April. “What you’re seeing are these growing inequities across the state depending on whether that local community has the wealth and ability to pass a local election.”
Seattle embraces education levy
A property tax measure called the Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy, was approved by voters in Seattle, Washington Tuesday. The measure will raise $620 million over the course of seven years by upping the amount of money paid by owners of a home with a median assessed value, from $136 to $248, according to the Seattle Times. That money can then be used to fund preschool and elementary school programs in Seattle Public Schools, add health clinics on campus, and pay for community college scholarships for district graduates.
On Tuesday night, the levy led by 69 percent.
Washington state’s education formula, like many state funding formulas, has in the past resulted in stark “stealth inequities,” Bruce Baker, a professor at New Jersey’s Rutgers University who is considered an expert in school funding, told The Seattle Times’ Education Lab. Because high funding relies on high “staff mix,” Baker said — or the number of “seasoned” educators in a given district — those with more experienced teachers bring in more funding.
That’s also meant higher poverty districts that typically attract less experienced educators get less funding as a result.
“Washington perplexes me,” he said. “It’s a progressive state, at least by reputation. But it’s unexpectedly not good on school funding.”
Voters approve constitutional amendments in two states
Georgia’s Amendment 5, which had 70 percent approval from voters Tuesday night, amends the Georgia Constitution to authorize a referendum for a sales and use tax for education. School districts with a majority of enrolled students within a county — or larger districts in a county with more than one public school system — can now call for a referendum to levy a sales tax to add more funding to crucial school programs, without having “buy-in” from smaller districts, The Macon Telegraph explains. All the school systems would share the funds, distributed according to enrollment.
Maryland’s Question 1, passed with 87.7 percent support, amends the state constitution to put revenue toward education from video lotteries. Members of Strong Schools Maryland, which advocates for more resources for Maryland schools, told WYPR that the community was spurred on by stories of students wearing winter hats and jackets in classrooms and getting no relief on hot summer days. Question 1 will bring in $125 million in 2020 for additional school funding and will eventually increase to $500 million in additional funding per year, WTOP reported.
Tax proposals on medical marijuana, real estate, and gas met with mixed results
Missouri voters knocked down Proposition C, which would have allowed for a 2 percent tax on medical marijuana, with revenues going toward drug treatment, veteran services, and early childhood education. The proposal would have created annual revenues of at least $10 million for the state and $152,000 for local governments, according to Springfield News-Leader.
Oklahomans also voted against State Question 801, a referendum that would have allowed property taxes to fund construction and school district operations, removing current restrictions. State Sen. Stephanie Bice (R), co-author of the legislation that led to Question 801, said that she wanted schools to be able to use that revenue for operating expenses because, “if a school district gets $1 million in their building and maintenance fund but only needs $900,000, why are we prohibiting them from utilizing that other $100,000 for other classroom needs?”
Utah voters, too, gave negative responses to a non-binding opinion question letting state lawmakers know what they thought of a 10 cent gas tax increase, which would have funded public schools. The increase would have injected money into state transportation funds and then into the education budget. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, schools would have received $100 million more each year. Utah currently has the lowest total per pupil spending in the United States, according to Governing.com’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
By contrast, Montana’s statute renewing a $6 million tax levy on real estate and personal property to help fund state universities passed, with 63 percent of voters in support of the measure. University of Montana students knocked on doors to tell voters to support the levy, many of them worried that tuition could increase by as much as 18 percent or that entire programs could be cut if the measure didn’t pass, the Missoula Current reported.
Maine voters approve bonds for community colleges
Maine Question 5, which appeared to have passed Wednesday morning with just under 65 percent support, provides a $15 million bond to improve the state’s seven community colleges. Funds would be used specifically to renovate campus heating and ventilating systems, instructional laboratories, and information technology infrastructure.
The improvements are long overdue. In August, Southern Maine Community College had to move students to temporary housing arrangements after they were forced to vacate their dorms due to the presence of mold in the building. According to the college, this was due to a problem with the dorm’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system.
Maine Question 4, which authorizes nearly $50 million in general obligation bonds for improvements to facilities in the University of Maine System, also appears to have been approved, with the official tally hovering around 54 percent Wednesday morning.
Education measures that never made it to the table
Due to legal fights over language within certain education measures, some didn’t make it before voters on Election Day.
Arizona was close to considering a ballot measure that would tax the wealthy to raise money for schools, but the Arizona Supreme Court ordered against it. The court said people signing the petition were not told that, in addition to the tax increase for Arizonans making more than $250,000 a year, it would also stop the indexing of income tax brackets to consider inflation, according to Capitol Media Services. The chief justice said that lack of information contributed to a “significant danger of confusion or unfairness.”
Hawaii voters nearly considered an amendment that requires lawmakers craft a bill that allows for a surcharge on investment properties with revenue going to fund public education. But just weeks before Election Day, the Hawaii Supreme Court sided with county officials and said that it was against state law because the language and meaning of the ballot has to be “clear and not misleading.”
The question was still printed on the ballot, but the state’s chief elections officer had to release a statement to the public saying that the question was invalid. According to Maui News, the state’s Department of Education had hoped it would raise $500 million.