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While education has barely registered a blip in the presidential race, voters in 11 states must decide ballot questions and contests for various statewide offices that could have an enormous impact on schools and students around the country.
Among them are eight school-funding initiatives, five state education superintendent seats that are up for grabs and, of course, the Massachusetts charter school cap and a potential state takeover of failing schools in Georgia.
Here are 22 big education votes to watch Tuesday night:
California: School funding, English-language learners
Among the 17 questions facing Golden State voters are three education-related issues: whether to continue a tax hike on personal incomes above $250,000 to fund K-12 schools, whether the state should float $9 billion in bonds for new schools and whether to lift limits on how schools can teach English-language learners.
Georgia: State takeover of failing schools
Voters will decide whether to create a state takeover district, being called an opportunity school district. The campaign has pitted Gov. Nathan Deal and education reform groups, who say the measure is a moral imperative to improve the lives of tens of thousands of Georgia children, against teachers unions, the state PTA and school boards that are fighting what they call increased bureaucracy, additional costs and loss of local control.
An October poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found widespread opposition to the measure: 34 percent of likely voters polled said they back the measure, while 59 percent were opposed and 8 percent remained undecided.
Indiana: Governor, state schools chief
Republican Jennifer McCormick, a district superintendent, is challenging incumbent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat and former school librarian, in a race for state superintendent of public instruction. As of early October, Ritz had a substantial advantage in fundraising, and she could be boosted by popular Democratic candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate. (Check out our coverage of the superintendent race from earlier this year.)
Over the summer, Ritz released an “Imagine 2020” plan, which calls for increasing the availability of preschool, reducing testing, proposing a “fair and adequate” funding formula, treating teachers like professionals and reaching a 91 percent graduation rate.
McCormick’s “Lesson Plan” emphasizes increasing broadband access in schools, establishing a “meaningful and manageable” assessment system, attracting and retaining teachers, closing the kindergarten readiness gap and reviewing funding problems.
Education has also become a big issue in the race to replace the current governor, Mike Pence, now the Republican vice presidential nominee. Democratic candidate John Gregg tried in an ad to tie GOP candidate Eric Holcomb, currently the lieutenant governor, to Pence’s record, which focused on expanding school choice and issuing A–F school grades. “Broken down, going nowhere. On schools, that’s the promise of Eric Holcomb,” the ad says.
Holcomb, meanwhile, pledged in an ad to “support and respect” teachers, expand pre-K and replace a much-maligned state test.
Maine: School funding
Voters will consider whether to institute an additional 3 percent tax on personal income over $200,000 per year, with the revenue dedicated to K-12 education funding, specifically teacher salaries. Supporters, including unions and the state PTA, say schools are underfunded statewide and that the state isn’t meeting a 2004 mandate to fund 55 percent of education costs. Opponents, primarily Republican leaders, the state Chamber of Commerce and business groups, say it would burden small-business owners and prevent funds from going to sorely needed school infrastructure improvements.
Massachusetts: Charter school cap
Question 2 on the ballot asks voters to raise the cap on the number of charter schools, the highest-performing in the country, by 12 per year. Voters have been bombarded by ads from both sides. Polling has been close, with a slight advantage to the “no” side.
Montana: State schools chief
Melissa Romano, a Democrat and an elementary school teacher, will face state Sen. Elsie Arntzen, a Republican, in the race for superintendent of public instruction. (Current superintendent Denise Juneau is term-limited; she’s running for Montana’s lone House seat. If elected, she’d be the first Native American woman in Congress.)
Romano and Arntzen have disagreed about preschool (Romano says there should be a state-funded program; Arntzen says it’s a local issue) and Common Core (Arntzen says it doesn’t have enough local input; Romano was part of a group of teachers that weighed in). Romano has also criticized Arntzen for backing school choice bills as a state legislator.
Romano has outspent Arntzen by more than $100,000, according to the Missoulian, and accepted a big contribution from the state teachers unions. State affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have spent $300,000 so far, the paper reported, dwarfing the $50,000 they spent on Juneau’s 2008 contest.
Arntzen has put in a substantial amount of her own money; her husband is the CEO of Century Gaming, a gambling technology firm.
Democrats have held the office since the 1980s, but Arntzen was ahead by four points in mid-October, according to a poll by Lee Newspapers. Twenty percent of respondents were undecided.
North Carolina: Senator, governor, state schools chief
The marquee race is for governor, where incumbent Republican Pat McCrory faces Democrat Roy Cooper, currently the state’s attorney general. Discussion of education issues, like teacher pay and spending, have largely been drowned out by HB2, a state law that overturns local anti-discrimination ordinances protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and that requires transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate.
In addition to the gubernatorial contest, three-term incumbent June Atkinson, a Democrat, faces lawyer Mark Johnson, a Republican, in the race for state superintendent. And Republican Sen. Richard Burr, a member of the Senate education committee, is in a tight race against former state Rep. Deborah Ross, a Democrat.
North Dakota: State schools chief, school funding
Incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler is facing a challenge from teacher Joe Chiang. (The race is officially nonpartisan, but both are Republicans. The state party endorsed Baesler.)
Baesler has touted passage of early childhood education funding, creation of a student cabinet to make kids’ voices heard on education issues, and formation of a panel to rewrite the Common Core State Standards, The Bismarck Tribune reported. Chiang said he’d require any new program to have an 80 percent proven success rate of bringing students to proficiency, and that he would work to revamp education funding.
North Dakota voters will also consider whether to make it easier for the governor and state Legislature to use a specific fund from oil tax revenues for education purposes.
Oklahoma: School funding
Voters will consider whether to institute a 1 percent sales tax to be devoted to education. Most of the additional funding, 69.5 percent, would go directly to school districts, with a mandate that teacher salaries be raised at least $5,000. Districts have had to dramatically cut budgets the past two years in the face of huge state revenue shortfalls.
The rest of the tax revenue would be divided among higher education, career and technical education and the state Department of Education. Supporters, including Stand for Children and the state school boards and teachers union, say it’s the only way to ensure a dedicated stream of badly needed revenue. Opponents say there are other ways to raise revenue and that a sales tax is regressive and hurts low- and middle-income families.
A late-October poll found 60 percent of registered voters support the new tax, known as Question 779.
Oregon: School funding
Measure 98 asks voters whether the Legislature should fund an $800-per-pupil grant program to be spent on dropout prevention, career and technical education and “college-level opportunities.” Oregon has one of the worst high school graduation rates in the country: 73.8 percent in 2014–15, 10 percentage points lower than the national average.
Oregon voters will also consider measures to raise taxes on big corporations, with the new money allocated for pre–K-12 education, health care and services for senior citizens. A third ballot initiative would set aside lottery revenues for outdoor education for fifth- and sixth-graders.
Washington: State schools chief, state Supreme Court justices
Erin Jones, currently an assistant state superintendent, is running against Chris Reykdal, a state legislator, to be superintendent of public instruction. (Check out our previous coverage of the race and interviews with the five candidates who were running at the time.)
Reykdal has been endorsed by the outgoing superintendent, Randy Dorn, and the Washington Education Association in the nonpartisan race. He’s running on his experience in the state Legislature and as an educator, and he said his first act would be to bring a bipartisan full school funding plan to the legislature to meet an ongoing state Supreme Court requirement, The Seattle Times reported.
Jones, meanwhile, is banking on her reputation as an outsider, the Times reported. She’s garnered support from a coalition of progressive and education reform groups, Republicans and newspaper editorial boards. Stand for Children Washington, for instance, has spent nearly $165,000 to back her campaign, according to state campaign finance records.
Washington voters will also decide whether to keep three state Supreme Court justices, all of whom signed on to pivotal decisions requiring the Legislature to increase K-12 spending and declaring charter schools unconstitutional. This is the first time in two decades that all the justices up for re-election are being challenged.
Greg Zempel, for instance, has received backing from the pro-charter group Stand for Children, to the tune of $130,000 to run against Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, who authored the charter decision. The state teachers union, meanwhile, has contributed to Madsen. Justices Charlie Wiggins and Mary Yu are also facing challengers.
(The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation provide funding to The 74 and Stand for Children, which played a prominent role in the Washington judicial races, as well as the Oklahoma and Oregon ballot initiatives.)