Stateline Story

Education Initiatives Take New Approach

The emphasis in this election has shifted away from "traditional" education issues -- such as vouchers and tuition tax credits -- to issues ranging from smaller class-size to universal pre-kindergarten.

"This election cycle seems to be dominated by more progressive education reforms than conservative," says Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center , a Washington, D.C., group that was founded in '98 precisely to support liberal ballot measures.

Stinging defeats at the polls in '00 in Michigan and California have put vouchers on the back burner, at least for now. The ballot "is not the best way to implement school choice," says Neal McCluskey, a policy analyst at the Center for Education Reform , a D.C. group that supports vouchers and charter schools.

Voucher proponents instead will likely try their luck with legislatures, not voters, in their push to let government pay for students to attend private schools. Look for action in the next legislative session in California, Illinois, Colorado, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Texas.

This election is also notable in that entertainers, politicians and millionaires are doing more than just lending their names to bolster support for their pet political projects. They are using their celebrity status and connections to personally lead campaigns to get their proposals on the ballots.

This reflects a growing trend of frustrated individuals taking their causes directly to voters when state legislatures refuse to act, says Bill Comer, an organizational specialist with the National Education Association , which represents teachers and school administrators.

Here's a look at the high-profile education initiatives that will be on this November's ballots and the people behind them.

  • In California, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger brings star power and financial backing to his bid to force the state to spend more money on before- and after-school programs up to $455 million. The League of Women Voters of California calls Prop 49 "a bad approach to a good cause" because it mandates and guarantees a certain level of funding for one particular program. Opponents are clearly out-gunned financially. Schwarzenegger's group, Citizens For After School Programs , says it has already raised $8 million and hopes to raise another $2 million to promote the measure while the league says it has spent less than $1,000. 
  • In Florida, State Sen. Kendrick Meek (D-Miami), couldn't convince the legislature to mandate smaller class sizes so he is putting it to voters to decide. Meek chairs Florida's Coalition to Reduce Class Size, the group pushing to change the state constitution to limit to 18 the number of students in pre-kindergarten through third grade. Grades 4 through 8 would have up to 22 students in a class, 25 for high school, if the initiative is approved. The class-size measure looms large in Florida's governor's race. Gov. Jeb Bush is running on an education platform, but balks at the small hefty price tag associated with building more class rooms and hiring more teachers. Estimates range from $2 billion to $27 billion over eight years. Supporters of the smaller class proposal say they have raised $1.3 million to promote the initiative while opponents expect to have a $2.5 million war chest. Mandating smaller-class sizes is a developing trend, says Earl Bender, president of Avenel Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., political consulting firm that specializes in ballot measure campaigns. "It's not a prairie fire, but it's slowly spreading across the country," he says. Look for other states to watch Florida closely.
  • Another Florida education ballot initiative is far less controversial, but also has a politician as its main cheerleader. Mayor Alex Penelas of Miami-Dade County is behind a move to require the state offer free, universal pre-kindergarten learning for all 4-year-olds in Florida. This proposal would cost the state $277 million a year. Opposition is muted, thus far. But David Salisbury, director of educational freedom at the Cato , libertarian group in Washington, calls universal pre-K initiatives "very misguided" and a "fad," saying the programs are expensive and haven't proven beneficial. 

A Silicon Valley millionaire is behind two contentious English-only ballot initiatives in Colorado and Massachusetts. Ron K. Unz saw success in California and Arizona when he pushed to disband bilingual education in those states through ballot initiatives in '98 and '00 respectively. Unz's group, English for the Children" , now aims to replace bilingual education in Colorado and Massachusetts with "English immersion" classes that students take for a year before being transferred to regular classes.

Unz faces a tough battle. This month opponents of the measure in Colorado, English Plus , got a $3 million donation from philanthropist Patricia Stryker to defeat the measure in that state. Unz says since '98, he has spent $1.5 million on all four measures. Look for this issue to resurface as Unz is already eyeing other states to take the campaign. 

Tags: Education