States Putting Education Reform Measures on Ballot this Fall

The presidential election won’t be the only thing drawing voters to the polls next week, as residents in several states around the country are set to consider proposals that have the potential to drastically alter the public education landscape. From tenure to charter schools to new teacher assessment criteria, those casting their ballots next Tuesday will be making choices on some of the most controversial issues currently riling the country’s education system.

As usual, when the stakes are this high, the fight to put your own case to the voters can get heated. There are few surprises about how the two sides have aligned; education reform advocates are fighting what they see as the entrenched interests of the teachers unions who put the needs of their members above the needs of the students. The unions, meanwhile, are accusing their opponents of attempting to strip funding and resources from public schools, all in service of economic ideology rather than the best interests of the kids filling the classrooms.

Washington charter school advocates are hoping that fourth time is the charm for the measure that would allow charter schools to open in the state. Similar proposals have been on the ballot in the state on three other occasions, notably in 2004 when it was defeated by a margin of more than 15%. Opponents’ concerns range from the belief that charters will drain resources from a school system that is already considered underfunded by the courts, to a lack of data proving that charter schools produce better outcomes than public schools on a consistent basis.

Supporters, including Bill Gates and Wall-Mart heir Alice Walton, dispute the assertion that charter schools will end up costing more to operate. Instead, they argue that charters will bring innovation and improvement at the same price tag.

Georgia residents will also be weighing in on charter schools next week. Although charters have been operating in the state, the measure on the ballot would give the power of charter approval – which has previously been held by local school boards – to a state-level agency. Supporters say that adding flexibility to the approval process will both speed it up and make it easier for charter chains that operate in multiple districts around the state to seek and gain approval.

The ballot measure has drawn support from several out-of-state, for-profit companies that manage charter schools. The chain Charter Schools USA donated $100,000, as did K12 Inc, which runs online schools nationwide. Walton contributed $250,000. Several leading conservative and religious-right groups, including the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition, have also backed the cause.

In education media, Idaho’s aggressive new schools chief Tom Luna has been getting more press than the man who appointed him, Governor Butch Otter. Luna is the author of the legislation that completes overhauls the state’s education system, including phasing out teacher tenure, limiting collective bargaining, and giving parents a voice in teacher assessment. Next week Idaho voters will get to decide if the law passed earlier this year will remain on the books.

The National Education Association has given more than $1 million to the ballot campaign and the state branch has contributed another $280,000. Their main argument in the deeply conservative state: The measures waste tax dollars and impose state rules and bureaucracy on school systems that should be run locally.