Voters in several states had more than the presidential election on their minds Tuesday-- they faced ballot measures dealing with a variety of education initiatives. The initiatives included allowing school vouchers, ending bilingual education, tying teacher pay to student performance, and prohibiting school instruction that promotes or sanctions homosexual or bisexual behaviors.
In Arizona, a controversial measure calling for the elimination of bilingual education passed by a margin of 63.1 percent to 36.9 percent. Opponents of vouchers for students to attend private schools found reason to celebrate in California and Michigan. Referenda proposing voucher programs failed in California, 67 percent to 33 percent, and in Michigan, 73 percent to 27 percent, according to Initiative and Referendum Institute. The non-partisan group tracks ballot measures and initiatives.
As of Wednesday morning, Oregon voters still waited for the decision on a measure that would prohibit "public school instruction encouraging, promoting, sanctioning homosexual, bisexual behaviors." With about 20 percent of the ballots still to be counted, the margin was about 51 percent against the measure and 49 percent in favor. Oregon voters did defeat, by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent, a state constitutional amendment tying teachers' salary increases to student performance,
Thirty-two major education-related referenda appeared on state ballots this year, including 13 that resulted from petitions. That is a record number, according to M. Dane Waters, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute. Of the total number of education measures, Education World followed five that were particularly controversial in four states: Arizona, California, Michigan, and Oregon.
In Arizona, voters decided to eliminate bilingual education in public schools and to replace it with a one-year English-immersion program. The measure, Proposition 203, drew criticism from Hispanic, Native American, and education groups.
Under the provisions of Proposition 203, a parent can seek a waiver for the English-only immersion class if a student already speaks English, is at least ten years old, or has "special individual needs." Some bilingual classes would be available, but school officials "without explanation or legal consequence" could deny waivers.
Not all Hispanics, though, opposed the measure. "This is a victory for me ... a victory for the Mexican American children of Arizona," Maria Mendoza, co-chairwoman of the Proposition 203 sponsor, English for the Children-Arizona. "They have earned the right to learn English in Arizona public schools. We have also returned the right of parents to choose education for their children."
John Wright, vice president of the Arizona Education Association (AEA), said the measure will probably be challenged in court. The AEA opposed Proposition 203 in part because it prevents parents and teachers from choosing what they think is the best way of teaching children English, Wright said.
Alejandra Sotomayor, co-chairwoman of an opposition group, English Plus More, said she was disappointed with the outcome. "Unfortunately, Arizona voters either did not know the issues or chose to vote in a way that allows them to harbor negative feelings about immigrants."
Arizona schools had an English immersion program for about 48 years, according to Sotomayor, but it was eliminated in favor of bilingual education because the dropout rate for the immersion program was so high.
Native American groups joined Hispanic organizations in characterizing the measure as an attack on their culture. A letter of opposition from the Navajo Nation Office of the President/Vice President states: "The people of the Navajo Nation understand the importance of their children learning English, but realize the importance of protecting Navajo culture through the use and education of the Navajo language."
The Arizona proposition is modeled after Proposition 227, which California voters approved in 1998. Supporters of the Arizona measure received financial support from the backer of the California proposition, Ron Utz.
The Oregon Education Association (OEA) campaigned against nine of 11 ballot measures affecting education in that state, including Measure 9, which prohibits school employees from "encouraging, promoting, sanctioning homosexual, bisexual behaviors" among students. Measure 95, a constitutional amendment, "bases teacher pay [at public institutions] on the increase in appropriate knowledge of students while under that teacher's instruction." The amendment did not specify how school systems would measure student performance. On Wednesday morning, both measures appeared to have failed.
The OEA spent several million dollars collected from various sources supporting its position on the initiatives, including $2 million to $3 million of its own money, according to OEA President James Sager.
The OEA argued that Measure 9 "truly puts students at risk," Sager told Education World, by prohibiting teachers from discussing topics related to HIV and AIDS prevention. On Wednesday, Sager said he was not surprised by the close margin on the measure. "A lot of people don't know what happens in the schools and are fearful of what happens in the schools."
Teachers do not "promote" homosexuality, as some proponents of the measure have maintained, Sager said. "We don't promote homosexuality and we don't promote heterosexuality," he said. "We promote understanding and acceptance of people."
Anna Van Tassel, a member of the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), which got the measure on the ballot, said that her organization became concerned that homosexuality was being presented to students as acceptable. "Homosexuals are teaching in our schools, and they are teaching that it's OK, it's an alternative lifestyle," Van Tassel told Education World. "We don't think they need to teach that-- they cannot promote their lifestyle." The measure will not affect educational programs dealing with HIV and AIDS prevention, she added.
OCA President Lon Mabon said Wednesday that he remained optimistic about Measure 9. "We could win or lose by fewer than 1,000 votes." OCA members collected about $200,000 to campaign for the measure, noted Van Tassel.
As for tying teachers' pay increases to student performance, Sager said the apparent defeat of that measure was a solid victory. "It was real clear the voters understood it wasn't good for schools."
The Oregon Education Association took the position that Measure 95 would be "detrimental to the education process," Sager said. "Every school would have to identify the appropriate growth experience for each kid in every subject area. It would be a terrible waste of taxpayers' money and time. We need to focus on educating our students."
The sponsoring organization, Oregon Taxpayers United (OTU), viewed the amendment as a way of improving the quality of education in the state, according to Becky Miller, a spokeswoman for OTU. In the past, critics of the group have considered measures to reduce property taxes as detrimental to education funding, Miller told Education World. Members of OTU decided to sponsor the amendment and a campaign to increase parental involvement in the schools as part of an effort to improve education, she said.
"We expected it would fail," Miller said. "Although the concept was held very high, the ballot title was poorly written, and we were outspent by huge amounts." The OTU spent about $125,000 on signature campaigns to get six measures on the state ballot and about $25,000 to support Measure 95, according to Miller. The organization plans to pursue the issue, she added.
Vouchers will not be an option in California or Michigan anytime soon. Voters defeated ballot measures in those states on Tuesday. One thing is sure: Vouchers cost big bucks to promote and defeat-- the price tag was about $80 million in California and Michigan alone this election. As ballot measures go, these two education initiatives were among the most expensive across the nation.
Both the Michigan and California voucher initiatives were spearheaded by wealthy business owners: Silicon Valley's Timothy Draper promoted the California measure and Amway founders Dick and Betsy DeVos backed the Michigan initiative. If approved, the two ballot measures would have opened the door to major school reform measures in both states.
The California Teachers Association battled Draper's $20 million donation plus another $3 million in contributions. Draper, a former appointee to the California Board of Education and a wealthy Silicon Valley executive, initiated Proposition 38. It would have provided vouchers worth a minimum of $4,000 to parents interested in sending their kids to private schools, religious or nonreligious.
The voucher proposal was serious business to the California Teacher Association (CTA), which spent about $22 million to defeat Proposition 38. "This is sort of a poison pill for us-- we live or die by this proposition," said Wayne Johnson, president of CTA. The association raised $14 million and received $4.5 million from the National Education Association. Members also raised several million from other education associations and school staff unions.
The coalition promoting the voucher proposition had an uphill battle. "Most of the establishments lined up with teacher unions who defended the status quo," said Chris Bertilli, spokesperson for Proposition 38 Yes!, the organization promoting the California vouchers.
Proponents of school vouchers wanted to level the playing field for those children from poor and disadvantaged families who attend failing schools, Bertilli told Education World.
In Michigan, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) played a role in establishing a nonprofit organization, All Kids First!, to lead the fight against their state's voucher proposal. It called for a state constitutional amendment that would have opened the door for vouchers. The coalition raised more than $6 million and had spent $4 million by Election Day.
About 250 other organizations in the state joined the MEA efforts, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Michigan Parent Teacher Association, said Laura Wotruba, spokeswoman for All Kids First!
"This is definitely a victory for all kids in Michigan," Wotruba said on Wednesday morning. "We relied on a grassroots effort to get out our message. We told voters to look at the heart of the proposal, which is public money for private schools. That would hurt kids in local schools."
Proponents say that although they lost in the ballot box, they won on other fronts, such as promoting dialogue about failing school systems in Michigan. "This forced the education establishment to recognize the serious problems in Michigan schools and to refocus efforts to fix failing schools," said Ed Patru, spokesman for All Kids First! Yes! People who favor vouchers consider this a social justice issue about equal opportunities for education. "We're motivated more than ever, and there is a strong possibility vouchers will be on the ballot again in two or four years," Patru asserted.
Ellen R. Delisio and Diane Weaver Dunne
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