Ballot Initiatives Turning to Schools

Citizen Interest, Powerful Sponsors Generate Record Number of State Measures

A record number of education initiatives will be on state ballots in November, a development that reflects voters’ keen interest in the issue and their growing impatience with the pace of school reform directed by elected officials.

A total of 11 measures will be on ballots in six western and midwestern states as citizen groups, teachers unions and wealthy activists seek voter approval on proposals affecting vouchers for private schools, teacher salaries, bilingual education and instruction about homosexuality. The previous record was five education initiatives in 1998, according to the Initiative and Reform Institute, a research group based in Washington.

“I think voters are telling candidates, ‘We’re serious about education.’ That’s the big message that all these initiatives are sending,” says Shaun Bowler, a political science professor at the University of California at Riverside. Beyond their specific provisions, the initiatives, bearing on a top issue in opinion polls, could boost voter turnout and overall campaign spending, draw more unionized teachers into volunteer campaign work and stimulate political debate about education issues in those states.

The initiatives provide a way for citizens to try to take public school improvement into their own hands and circumvent state legislatures that have, in some cases, already rebuffed similar proposals.

At the same time, legislatures in five states have put education referendums on the ballot. The measures focus on school funding or governance, but do not raise the kinds of controversial issues that citizen groups are putting before voters.

The ballot questions raised by the petitions ask voters to decide such divisive issues as private school vouchers in Michigan and California, a proposed ban on bilingual education in Arizona and, in Oregon, a proposal to prohibit instruction that endorses homosexuality and another that mandates performance pay for teachers. Initiatives to increase school funding are also on several ballots.

“We have some of the most diverse educational issues I’ve seen in a long time,” said M. Dane Waters, president of the Initiative and Reform Institute.

Traditionally, ballot initiatives have focused on tax and budget matters–a pattern that remains unchanged. From 1974 to 1992, just 2 percent of all initiatives concerned education, says David Magleby, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. Based on the institute’s tallies, that proportion has leapt to between 15 and 19 percent, depending on the final number of other initiatives that make this year’s ballot.

Magleby, an expert on the initiative process, says sponsors of the education proposals are “catching the wave of public concern about the quality of schools, compensation for teachers, the suitability of school buildings and reducing class sizes.”

But popular sentiment is not entirely responsible for putting education on the ballot. In several cases, initiatives were pushed by big money men or powerful interest groups.

Amway Corp. co-founder Rich DeVos has bankrolled the campaign for vouchers in Michigan, and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Timothy Draper sponsored California’s voucher plan, pledging $20 million of his own money to attempt to get it passed. Another Californian, millionaire Ron Unz, has plunked down $105,000 toward the effort to export to Arizona the ban on bilingual education he succeeded in passing in his home state two years ago.

In Washington state, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has financed the effort to authorize the state’s first charter schools, which operate independently of local school districts. Voters have rejected the idea once, despite the popularity of charter schools in other states.

The state affiliate of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, has proposed an initiative to mandate annual cost-of-living raises for teachers in Washington state. The NEA has kicked in $1 million to fight vouchers in Michigan and expects to spend millions more there and in California. On the other side of the issue, the Detroit diocese and Catholic churches in Michigan have anted up $765,000 to back that state’s voucher initiative.

The wealthy activists and big interest groups are attempting to channel public discontent about schools toward specific solutions, as are state legislatures that have submitted referendums to increase school funding in Arizona and Colorado.

So far, no state’s voters have ever approved vouchers, for fear of causing irreparable damage to public school systems, but the Michigan proposal is not as broad as the initiatives defeated in other states. Government vouchers of $3,100 would be available only in districts where fewer than two-thirds of students graduate from high school.

“No other state has had a targeted voucher proposal,” says Ed McNeilly, spokesman for the voucher campaign. “A lot of Michigan school districts are fine. They don’t need a voucher program.”

California’s initiative would make vouchers available to all students, a proposal similar to one rejected by 70 percent of the state’s voters in 1993. An early opinion poll, taken before either side had mounted a significant campaign, suggests that the margin could be tighter this time.

Arizona’s proposal to end bilingual education mirrors a 1998 California initiative that passed with 61 percent of the vote. The initiative would shift immigrant students into a year of English-only courses, unless they were granted waivers. About 16 percent of the state’s 813,000 students are now in bilingual classes, most conducted in Spanish.

“Bilingual education is not education at all,” charges Maria Mendoza of Tucson, a leader of the group officially sponsoring the initiative. “It’s just plain garbage. It discriminates against Mexican American students by not allowing them to learn English promptly.”

But Gabriella Lemus, legislative director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, maintains that a one-year immersion program makes no educational sense for students. “If they don’t learn English adequately, then what? You just abandon them?” she said. “It takes an adult on average about 18 months to learn a language, unless you’re linguistically gifted.”

In Oregon, a leading producer of initiatives, the proposed ban on any instruction that encourages homosexuality or bisexuality in public schools–with schools possibly losing state funds for violations–has attracted condemnations from national gay rights groups.

Lon Mabon, chairman of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, which promotes traditional family values, said his group proposed the ban after reviewing sex and AIDS education courses, library books, gay student clubs and school diversity policies. “It is wrapped up in the bows and ribbons of tolerance and diversity, but it is promotion and sanctioning by schools of homosexual behavior,” Mabon said.

Larry Austin, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Education, said state rules already allow parents to withdraw their children from sex and AIDS education courses. “This is sort of a nonissue. It’s not on our radar screen as far as parental complaints,” he said.

Another Oregon initiative would scrap the traditional salary schedule for teachers, which is based on seniority and level of college education, mandating instead that future pay raises be based on how much their students learn. The idea of such performance pay for teachers has become popular with prominent members of both major parties nationally, and experiments are underway in a few cities, but no state has implemented the change in such a broad way.

“This measure rewards teachers for the very outcome we want to see, student learning,” said Becky Miller, a leader of Oregon Taxpayers United, which sponsored the initiative. It does not spell out how student achievement would be measured.

But James Sager, president of the Oregon Education Association, called the i nitiative “unfair and unrealistic” because it mandates “pay for student performance,” rather than a teacher’s performance.

With a third initiative, Oregon is on the leading edge of a new trend in school funding. Across the country, education officials have grown concerned about making sure that funding is adequate so students can meet state academic standards. Oregon’s measure would require the legislature to provide funding sufficient to reach the state’s quality education goals or explain why the money is unavailable.

A Colorado initiative would increase state education funding by inflation plus 1 percent each year for the next decade. In Washington, one ballot proposal would allocate surpluses from the state lottery to reduce class sizes and build schools.

Bowler, the University of California professor, said the November votes on school funding and other education measures would tell officials whether voters want more resources, more accountability or some combination of both for schools. “Initiative elections give politicians a message,” Bowler said. “They can’t get around it.”

Education Votes

Education issues coming before voters this November:

INITIATIVES placed on ballot by citizen petitions


Bans bilingual education and substitutes one year of immersion in English.


Authorizes private school vouchers of at least $4,000 per student.

Reduces required supermajority vote to pass school bond issues to 55 percent, from current two-thirds.


Requires state to increase K-12 funding by at least 1 percent more than inflation rate every year for a decade.


Authorizes private school vouchers of $3,100 in school districts with low high school graduation rates, mandates testing of teachers in academic subjects and guarantees state’s per pupil expenditures remain at current level, about $6,600.


Bans instruction sanctioning homosexuality or bisexuality, with schools found in violation facing possible loss of state funds.

Mandates teacher pay raises beyond cost of living be performance-based and writes existing ban on teacher tenure into state constitution.

Requires legislature to provide sufficient funding to meet its quality education goals or explain why funds unavailable.


Authorizes first charter schools in state.

Mandates legislature give annual cost of living raises to teachers.

Allocates surplus state lottery revenue to reduce class sizes and construct schools.

REFERENDUMS put on ballot by state legislatures


Alters composition of Auburn University’s Board of Trustees.


Increases state sales tax and directs additional revenue to education, including performance pay raises for teachers.


Permits $250 million more in funding for math and science programs over five years, despite limitations on state spending.


Increases autonomy of University of Hawaii.


Reserves proceeds from selling school property for education fund.

SOURCES: Initiative and Reform Institute, offices of secretaries of state

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