Voters Nationwide Facing Major Education Funding Measures

This election day, voters will be deciding on more than just who occupies the Oval Office and who roams halls of Congress. The Wall Street Journal reports that in five states, ballots will also include measures that will hike tax rates to raise additional funding for the education system.

The measures on ballots in Arizona, Missouri and South Dakota are run-of-the-mill tax increases, while Oregon is asking its residents whether some of the money typically paid to corporations in the form of tax rebates should be redirected towards education funding instead. In California, meanwhile, Proposition 30 is seeking voter approvals for tax-hikes on households making more than 500,000 a year, without which automatic cuts could see public schools lose a large chunk of their state funding.

According to the WSJ, this is the largest number of education-related tax initiatives on the ballots at the same time in over two decades. Some are even arguing that these measures are actually a proxy for a vote of confidence on the state of the education system in the country today.

Although all sectors of the economy suffered greatly in the 2008 recession, education funding has taken a particularly big hit. As states adjusted budgets to fill fiscal gaps created by falling revenue, schools almost everywhere felt – and continue to feel – the pinch. According to the data collected by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, funding levels for education in 35 of 50 states continues to fall below the levels of 2008. For lawmakers seeking ways to make up these cuts, the path is much less smooth than it has ever been before.

Opponents of the increased taxes note that even though education spending is far higher now than it was a decade ago, academic performance has been basically flat in many grades and subjects. American elementary and secondary schools are projected to spend about $518 billion this year, not including capital outlays and interest on debt, or about $10,434 a pupil. That's up from about $457 billion, or $9,480 a pupil—in inflation-adjusted dollars—10 years ago, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Tax-increase opponents contend public education needs a major overhaul before more money is pumped in.

Arizona State Treasurer Doug Ducey is one example of a politician who believes that states don't gain much value from increasing education spending. He is on the record as strongly opposing the ballot initiative that would make permanent a 1% sales tax hike which is set to expire next year. The tax, which raises about $1 billion annually, is used to augment state education grants. Ducey believes that the new tax hurts businesses without offsetting that pain with academic gains.

"It's just pouring more money into the system and hoping that, magically, it fixes the problems in the classroom," said Mr. Ducey, a Republican who heads a campaign to defeat the measure. His campaign has raised $1 million, he said, coming mostly from 501(c)4 groups that don't have to disclose donors.

Meanwhile Arizona school districts, which have lost more than 22% of their funding since 2008, are taking extreme measures to keep their doors open. Tuscon Unified School District has cut more than 900 staff positions due to funding cuts and is now contemplating a plan to close 31 schools.

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