What Happened on November 6th?
November 6th has come and gone but the 2012 election results will have a long-term impact on education, both nationally and in states. Voters considered ballot initiatives to increase taxes specifically to fund education, amendments allowing for charter school creation, and various propositions and referendums affecting teachers and their unions. The re-hiring of a president who believes in federal control of schools will also affect how America educates students.
Teachers unions, particularly the National Education Association (NEA), supported Barack Obama and spent lavishly to support and oppose a variety of amendments in states.
Obama and the Congress
While his opponent favored education policy directed by state and local governments, the reelection of Barack Obama suggests that the federal government’s role in education will continue to increase. The Race to the Top (RTT) grant program has seen 46 states make reforms in order to receive more federal money. “Race to the Top represented, in my mind, not just an education program but a philosophy about how you wield influence from Washington, D.C.,” said Jeffrey Henig, a Columbia University professor. (The Hechinger Report, 11-07-2012)
Both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, the largest teachers unions, supported the reelection of Obama although they disagree with some of his policies. Tying test scores to teacher evaluations, teacher merit pay, and the formation of charter schools are reforms the teachers unions do not support. Obama does support them all on some level. On the other hand, Obama’s promise to invest more money in educating children from infant child-care years through college served to keep the unions on the President’s team.
Obama has so far failed in his attempts to persuade Congress to pass a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) or No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In his second term, it is unclear whether the administration will simply continue to offer waivers to states that fail to meet ESEA and NCLB standards or if Congress will arrive at a compromise renewal. The Senate and House both have bills in committee that would renew the ESEA/NCLB laws but whether the Democrat-held Senate and the Republican-held House can reach a compromise remains to be seen.
The divided Congress has other education issues to tackle, including an estimated $7.9 billion shortfall in the Pell Grant program, education loan interest rate increases, and various laws governing special education, higher education, and technical education. Many Republicans in Congress oppose the administration on RTT, Investing in Innovation, and School Improvement Grants.
The most immediate problem facing Congress and Pres. Obama is sequestration, the automatic spending reductions mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2012. Cuts to almost every area of the federal government, including the Department of Education, will take effect on Jan. 2, 2013 unless the President and Congress come to an agreement on spending cuts and/or tax increases. “Everybody hates the sequester but nobody will do anything to make it go away,” according to an article in the Christian Science Monitor (09-15-2012).
Californians passed Proposition 30 which increases taxes on those making over $250,000 a year and increases sales tax by a quarter percent for four years. Gov. Jerry Brown touted this as necessary to save schools from elementary to university level in the state. Teachers unions supported Prop. 30.
A different measure in California, outlined in Prop. 32, was defeated. It would have taxed out-of-state businesses on their corporate profits and would have prevented members’ union dues which are automatically deducted from teacher paychecks from being used to sponsor political candidates and support political activity. California teachers must join the union in order to teach in the state but have no say in how their dues are spent. The California Teachers Association union spent $21 million of the $73 million total spent by all groups on the campaign to defeat Proposition 32.
Arizonans and South Dakotans both defeated propositions that would have raised sales taxes that help fund education.
In Illinois, an amendment that would have required the General Assembly to pass public employee pension increases by a three-fifths vote instead of a simple majority was opposed by the NEA and the amendment failed.
Michigan voters rejected an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing the rights of public and private sector employees to unionize. Although the NEA supported the amendment, 58% of voters rejected the measure.
Oklahomans overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting affirmative action. Racial and sexual preferences in education, public employment and contracts are now against the law in that state except when affirmative action must be adhered to in order to keep or obtain federal funds.
Charter School Amendments
After three previous ballot defeats, charter schools were approved on the fourth try in Washington state. As many as eight charter schools a year may be created for the next five years in the state.
Georgia solved its complicated charter school situation by passing a ballot measure that allows for the appointment of commissions that can approve charter schools even when a local school board has turned down the application. The Georgia Supreme Court had previously ruled that a statewide commission that approved the creation of charter schools was unconstitutional. Now the state constitution has been amended to provide for that entity. Independent commissions are important because local school boards are sometimes prone to deny the application of a competitor.
The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to halt charter school creation. It is alleged that the 59% of voters who approved the amendment did not understand that they were voting for a commission to be created to approve charter schools. In response to the lawsuit, the Wall Street Journal stated, “This is the legal equivalent of sending back a hamburger because you didn’t know it came with meat.” (11-19-12)
The NEA opposed the charter schools amendments in Georgia and Washington.
Reform Laws Repealed with NEA support
Bonuses for top-performing teachers and funding to attract teachers to areas of most need were voted down in South Dakota. Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaar attempted to end teacher tenure and instead pay teachers based on performance, but his efforts were overturned at the polls through a referendum put on the ballot by teachers unions. The laws passed by the state legislature would have given the top teachers in each district a $5,000 bonus had it not been overturned by 68% of voters.
In Idaho, “Students Come First” education reform laws championed by state school superintendent Tom Luna and passed by the state legislature were repealed by a ballot referendum initiated by the state teachers union. The laws would have limited collective bargaining by teachers unions, eliminated tenure, partially tied teachers’ pay to student test scores, and increased technology spending in schools. The NEA spent $2.8 million to oppose the Idaho education reforms.
Social Issues and the NEA
NEA support helped a Maryland version of Obama’s Dream Act succeed at the polls. The state will offer in-state tuition to illegal aliens who first attend two years of community college before attending a state college. University of Maryland out-of-state tuition is over $25,000 while in-state tuition is just over $7,000. The NEA supported another Maryland proposition in favor of gay marriage and that measure passed.
A Florida ballot measure titled “Religious Freedom” would have allowed tax dollars to fund parochial and other church-based schools. The NEA opposed it and it failed.
The NEA also fought a Minnesota ballot measure that would have required voters to show proper identification at the polls in future elections. This measure also failed.
Speaking from Obama’s victory party, NEA president Dennis Van Roekel told the Huffington Post, “The ballot propositions show that we’ve turned a real corner in America.” However, some may ask where exactly we’ve ended up after having turned that corner?