Tuesday’s election will determine whether Arne Duncan remains as President Obama’s education secretary (Duncan says he wants to stay and Obama has shown no interest in replacing him) or whether Mitt Romney will pick Duncan’s successor — but there’s a lot more at stake for public education when Americans go to the polls.
A handful of ballot initiatives in states around the country could spell important changes in public education. Voters are being asked to approve the growth of charter schools and vouchers, to raise taxes for schools, to institute merit pay for teachers and curb their collective bargaining rights, and more.
There are key races for state superintendent — including in Indiana, where Tony Bennett, who has pushed the privatization of public education further than just about any other state superintendent, is being challenged. Meanwhile, there are local school board positions up for grabs that ordinarily would be interesting only to area residents but this year have drawn the interest of outsiders with big pockets and their own education agendas. In places like New Orleans, residents say that the integrity of local control is at stake.
And this election is important to Michelle Rhee’s anti-union StudentsFirst organization, which has spent a great deal of money to support candidates in numerous states at the local and state levels. (You can read about its efforts in Missouri here.)
Here are some of the important ballot initiatives:
Maryland voters will decide whether to ratify a state law that allows some undocumented immigrants — those whose families have paid state income tax, have applied for green cards and who have no criminal records — to get in-state tuition at public universities after graduating from a Maryland community college.
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown is hoping that voters approve his Proposition 30, which calls for a $6 billion a year tax hike to fund a number of things in California, including local law enforcement and education. Brown has said that if it doesn’t pass, nearly $5.5 billion will have to be cut for public education in next year’s budget. There is a competing proposition on the ballot, this one sponsored by the very wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger. She spent more than $30 million to push Proposition 38, which would raise $10 billion a year for public schools by raising income tax. If both fail, the question remains just how big the cuts to public education will be next year.
In Florida, voters will decide the fate of the Blaine Amendment to the state Constitution, which prohibits the use of state funds at religious institutions. If voters agree to drop language that upholds the prohibition, the way will be paved for state-funded school vouchers that families can use at any private school, including religious ones. A statewide voucher program was ruled unconstitutional in 2006 because of the Blaine Amendment but voucher supporters keep pushing, with the backing of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has voiced support for the idea of giving every child public money to attend whatever school they want.
Georgia voters are being asked whether they want to spend money to re-create a state commission that would have the authority to approve new charter schools. The Georgia Supreme Court had ruled the first such commission unconstitutional last year. If the initiative is approved, the new commission will be able to override a decision of a local school board not to open a specific charter.
In Washington state, voters are being asked for the fourth time in less than a decade to decide whether to allow charter schools. This initiative has been funded in large part by billionaires — many who don’t live in the state. Bill Gates, who is a Washington resident, has forked over more than $3 million to push the charter initiative.
A union-led effort in Idaho is seeking to overturn three laws known as the “Luna laws” for the state superintendent, Tom Luna, who pushed for them to pass — that mandate a series of controversial education initiatives. They include linking at least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to student standardized test scores, the end of teacher tenure and limits on collective bargaining rights, merit pay for teachers based on test scores, and a requirement that all high school students take two online courses in order to graduate. If the well-financed campaign to throw out the laws is successful, it could embolden opponents of these reform measures in other states.
The Obama-Romney choice presents some stark contrasts in education policy. The biggest differences are the role of the federal government in public education — Romney doesn’t believe there should be much while Obama sees a far more robust presence — and vouchers. Obama doesn’t support the use of public money for private/religious school tuition and Romney not only does but wants to see a big expansion of voucher programs.
There’s a lot at stake in this election.