States’ Education Ballot Results Roundup: The Good, the Bad, and the Really Expensive

A dozen ballot initiatives in nine states focused on K-12 education issues. Also making news was the surprise defeat of Indiana incumbent and reformer State Superintendent Tony Bennett by Glenda Ritz, a former teacher backed by the union.

Charter schools won big in Georgia and Washington. Georgia voters passed an amendment allowing a statewide commission to approve independently operated charter schools, not just school districts, which can be hostile to chartering schools that compete with them for students and funding. The measure is the result of a 2011 state Supreme Court decision that ruled Georgia’s Charter School Commission ran afoul of local control requirements.

Apparently the fourth time’s the charm in Washington State. At long last voters approved a plan allowing 40 charter schools in the state over the next five years, making Washington the 43rd state, including D.C., to adopt charter school legislation.

But policies affecting teachers and unions were a mixed bag. Michigan voters rejected constitutional amendment making collective bargaining a right–widely considered a test case for expansion to other states, California in particular.

Speaking of the Golden State, the California Teachers Association (CTA) is breathing a sigh of relief now that voters have decided it’s okay for union bosses to deduct political activities dues directly from teachers’ paychecks without having to get their express permission first. Guess all that time away from the classroom to campaign really paid off—for the CTA, that is, not students or taxpayers. Meanwhile voters in Idaho rejected making unions’ collective bargaining with school districts more timely, open, and transparent. Teacher performance pay plans were also a no-go in Idaho—along with South Dakota. (See here, too.)

One of the most interesting ballot measures came from Florida. Voters there rejected an amendment to the state constitution that would have prevented the state from barring individuals from choosing religiously-affiliated service providers of education and healthcare. This measure would have overturned Florida’s Blaine Amendment and paved the way for K-12 education vouchers, which were deemed selectively unconstitutional in 2006. Florida voters should know better.

Besides the Sunshine State’s own voucher program for students with disabilities, nearly 11 percent of the country’s 5.8 million school-age children with special needs are already attending private schools of their parents’ choice at public expense under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Fully, 2,600 of those children are Floridians. (See the “Parentally placed in private schools” column in Table B3-2 here.) Additionally, more than one-third of all college Pell Grant recipients (3.4 million nationwide) use public dollars to attend private and proprietary colleges and universities. Close to 40 percent of Florida Pell Grant recipients (more than 232,000) use public dollars to attend non-public postsecondary institutions. (See Table 21 here.)

Back in Idaho, voters also rejected a variety of reforms intended to bring education into the 21st century, including improved transparency, complete with fiscal report cards for school districts, and expanded online learning options for students. This reform component was the most controversial of the state’s three education propositions. The state teachers union had a field day claiming that online learning would replace teachers with laptops, which would be ruined by klutzy kids spilling soda on the keyboards (starting at 1.05 minutes). Looks like nostalgia for the 19th century factory education model won out. Well, “Esto perpetua,” as they say in Idaho.

More money for schools is always a ballot box favorite, and voters in California and Oregon passed tax measures for additional K-12 funding. Apparently, more than $11,000 per pupil just isn’t enough for voters along the Pacific Coast. Arizona voters, however, said ‘No’ to making a 2010 temporary sales tax permanent for additional K-12 funding, so schools there will have to get by with just $9,600 per pupil.

As they say, all politics is local. So, too, is education—and it doesn’t get more local than a parent with every possible education option for his or her child. Parents and voters across the country will have different ideas about which policies are best, and that’s as it should be. Certainly the last thing we need in education is a one-size-fits-all approach.

That said the elephant in the classroom is how many otherwise intelligent people go completely soft over education funding measures. They suspend all disbelief that government schools could possibly curb their profligate ways, such as hiring legions of district and school staff and building Taj Mahal facilities. (For some eye-popping figures, scroll down to the bottom of the table here to the “Capital outlay” and “Interest on school debt” rows.)

That same suspension of disbelief helps explain several higher education ballot results.

Citizens in five states decided whether to take on more than $1 billion in bonding debt to pay for campus construction and renovation projects. Voters in Arizona, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Rhode Island said ‘Yes’ to a combined $995 million worth of bonding. Maine was the lone state whose voters said ‘No’ to debt by rejecting an $11.3 million bond measure.

Obviously nobody wants students attending dilapidated campuses. Yet it’s worth considering better ways to finance what should be ongoing regular maintenance and operations. Responsible business owners plan ahead by setting aside funds for future growth. Colleges and universities can do the same.

On average, public two- and four-year institutions receive nearly $30,000 per undergraduate in 2012 dollars, consisting of roughly: $9,700 in self-generated income and gifts; $7,500 in state, local, and federal appropriations (excluding student loans); $6,800 in government grants and contracts; and $5,500 in tuition and fees.

Included in that $30,000 average is close to $1,000 worth of appropriations, grants, and gifts just for capital projects per undergraduate. So why are taxpayers being asked to spend more in the first place, much less in a way that adds significant amounts of debt interest?

A recent analysis indicates that over a fifteen-year period postsecondary administration grew more than twice as much as instructional staff. This is significant since well over 100 postsecondary mid-level and senior-level administrative and non-teaching positions command six-figure salaries, compared to a handful of faculty positions that do. We should finance colleges and universities in ways that incentivize them to use existing resources better instead of coming back for more…plus interest.

Rather than states directing general (non-capital) lump-sum appropriations to institutions, those funds should be directed to undergraduates in the form of annual performance grants. Students who complete their programs on time would not have to pay back their grants; those who don’t, would. Directing just the state appropriation share to students (about $6,300 per undergraduate) would incentivize them to find the best programs at the best price. Importantly, the onus would be on institutions to keep their costs and tuition prices down over the long term—in part by saving for future capital projects rather than asking to use the taxpayer credit card.

Bonds were not the only higher education issue decided by voters this week. Among the more interesting measures was a plan to allow two Washington state universities to invest part of their reserve funds in private companies. Ideas like this one may sound sensible at first, but Washington voters clearly had concerns about the wisdom of government entities betting on winners with taxpayer dollars. (Arizona rejected a similar proposal in 2004.) And let’s not forget, the only ones who truly invest are the people who actually earned the money and accepted the risk. Government entities don’t “invest.” They spend other people’s money. And if one of their “investments” goes bad, representatives of those same government entities would come back to the taxpayers asking for more money. Conversely, even if those government entities did happen to pick a winner, there’s no guarantee that they’d ask taxpayers for less funding in the future.

Admissions and related student residency issues rounded out the higher education ballot initiatives—and are likely to ignite ongoing debate and legal action. Maryland voters passed the Dream Act Referendum. A noteworthy change included in this act is extending the time for honorably discharged veterans to qualify for in-state tuition rates, from one year to four years. This is an important step. A change to the GI Bill last year has left college-going veterans in 38 states in a massive financial lurch. Some 250,000 veterans returned to their home states after serving their country to find that their in-state colleges and universities had mis-classified them as out-of-state students. This means those veterans are being charged about twice as much as they should be.

A controversial component of Maryland’s Dream Act is making undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state tuition rates under certain conditions. Opponents object that this is preferential treatment. Yet in 2011 the Supreme Court rejected that argument, letting a similar California law stand because the in-state rate is based on students graduating from in-state high schools, not their citizenship. Currently, a dozen states have similar laws granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants. Seven states ban the practice.

Oklahoma is one of those states, and this week voters there approved a measure to end preferential treatment based on race and gender in college admissions and other areas. In recent weeks the University of Oklahoma has been accused of preferential admissions practices based on applicants’ race. So too has the University of Texas, Austin. Decades of federal efforts to end discrimination, including 40 years of Title IX, through preferential treatment based on gender, race, or external circumstances does not end discrimination. Nor does it further equal opportunity for all.

And equal educational opportunity for all requires that voters make informed decisions, not abdicate responsibility over education to government, along with a blank check.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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