Just Answer Yes or No: State Ballot Proposals and Making Education Policy by Direct Democracy

Written by: Dirk Zuschlag

Primary Source:  Green & Write, November 16, 2016


Courtesy of wikipedia commons

Courtesy of wikipedia commons

Citizens last week voted yes or no on scores of statewide proposals, including seventeen in California. The nine measures in seven states that concerned education policy fall into two distinct categories: proposals affecting education funding and proposals affecting education governance.

Proposals Affecting Education Funding

Six proposals sought new or enhanced sources of revenue for education. In California, approved Proposition 51 authorized bonds for the construction and modernization of educational facilities, and in Oregon, Measure 98 passed to establish a fund from which districts could obtain money for specified programing. Oregon voters defeated Measure 97, a tax on corporate sales to augment public school spending.

Measures in three states proposed specific tax rate hikes to benefit education. Question 2 in Maine, which passed, established an income tax surcharge that will add to general school funding. Amendment 3 in Missouri, which failed, would have almost quadrupled the cigarette tax for the purpose of expanding pre-K education. Oklahoma’s Question 779, which also failed, would have raised teacher salaries.

Proposals Affecting Education Governance and Implicating Local Control

Massachusetts Question 2 would have lifted the state charter school cap by allowing the state board of education to annually approve up to twelve new charter schools or enrollment expansions. These charters would have been exempt from state caps on the number of schools, the number of students, and the share of local district spending. The initiative ignited a “pitched battle,” with both sides relying on state and national interest group funding and support.  In all, the campaign cost more than $34 million, a Massachusetts record for total spending in an initiative campaign. The clash also enveloped both main political parties, and exacerbated a divide over charter school policy within the Democratic Party and among African-American groups. The bitter contest ended in defeat for Question 2.

In Georgia, the Republican governor and legislature put a proposed constitutional amendment, Amendment 1, on the ballot, which was strongly opposed by teacher unions, local boards and parent-teacher associations. The measure would have created a state-wide Opportunity School District (“OSD”) which would take over perennially low-performing schools mostly in poor, majority-minority districts. The governor would appoint an OSD superintendent reporting to him alone, and the superintendent would possess nearly complete authority up to 100 OSD schools for 5-10 years each. The voters rejected Amendment 1.

The California Proposition 58, which passed, reversed the result of a hotly contested vote over instructional practices for English Learners. Nearly 20 years ago, the electorate approved Proposition 227, which effectively banned bilingual education programs and mandated English-only classrooms. Prop 58 not only repealed the earlier law, but also will allow local districts to select the preferred curricula with community input.

Two Kinds of Policy Questions But One Kind of Determination

Regardless of their individual merits or outcomes, the first type of education ballot proposals all present reasonably straightforward, almost transactional choices. In essence, if voters are willing to pay more taxes, they receive enhanced educational services. At least the first-order cost-benefit terms of the “exchange,” its policy cause and effect, are relatively concrete and certain. Further, since many legislatures refuse to consider almost any tax and spending increase, ballot proposals often represent the only avenue available for voters to tax themselves to obtain valued benefits.

In contrast, the second category of proposals, however simply and clearly stated, entails more complex and challenging policy choices—choices with diffuse, persisting and ambiguous impacts (including potentially significant policy feedback effects). Even the perfectly informed voter with unlimited time, energy and motivation would face an insurmountable task of empirical assessment and normative judgment.

All these proposals bring contentious politics, enlist conflicting research, and pose substantial difficulties in implementation and evaluation. All are indicative of larger controversies over the education of disadvantaged children, and who delivers and controls it. As amply shown by the political battles over them, issues of education governance, let alone instructional practice, necessarily implicate a host of conflicting perspectives, interests and values. A binary vote of the general electorate is unlikely to result in a satisfactory resolution, politically or educationally.

Additionally, the question could be asked: Isn’t this kind of policymaking what democratically accountable representatives and expert civil servants are paid to do? Messy as it is, governmental and bureaucratic processes tend to draw upon a greater capacity for policy expertise and skill. There is at least the opportunity for voice, evidence, deliberation and accountability. Rather than using ballot proposals, perhaps we should actually use the “default” system we’ve got—and it’s not just the yes or no of direct democracy.

Contact Dirk at zuschla2@msu.edu

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Dirk Zuschlag is a second-year education policy doctoral student. His research interests involve the interaction of teacher professionalism and accountability policies. Prior to entering MSU, Dirk taught public high school social studies for sixteen years and served as a learning coach and staff developer. He also spent thirteen years practicing law earlier in his career. He has a J.D. and an M.A. in Education from the University of Michigan, as well as a B.A. from Duke University.