By Amanda Litvinov
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Election 2014 was tough for public education activists. In far too many races, the candidate who was clearly the better choice for students and schools was not the one elected.
And yet, many voters who had the opportunity to vote on specific issues supported policies that are good for students and working families. That held true even in states that elected candidates who are less-friendly or downright hostile toward public education.
In Arkansas, voters missed the chance to elect a pro-public education governor and keep a defender of education in the U.S. Senate. But they spoke loudly in favor of raising wages.
“Educators know that children from families that are struggling to make ends meet often come to school stressed, hungry and less prepared to learn,” said Ashley Pledger, a librarian and media specialist from Rogers, Arkansas. “That’s why educators joined efforts to help pass a ballot measure that would raise the minimum wage in our state.”
Nationally, nearly 1 in 4 students has at least one parent earning minimum wage. Arkansas was one of four states that passed a binding referendum to boost their state wages. The others were Alaska, Nebraska, and South Dakota.
Illinois voters passed an advisory referendum asking state officials to get to work raising wages (the measure is non-binding). Voters in Wisconsin did the same. Unfortunately, they also re-elected Gov. Scott Walker, who has called efforts to raise the minimum wage “a cheap headline.”
Here are key ballot measure wins that will directly benefit students and schools:
Missouri voters took a stand on behalf of their educators and public schools when they voted overwhelmingly against Amendment 3. It was an initiative to change the state constitution to use student performance on high-stakes standardized tests to determine teacher pay; demote or terminate educators; or punish struggling schools by withholding state and local funding. It would have made teaching a term-limited gig by capping educator contracts at three years and sought to prohibit educators from organizing or collectively bargaining any aspect of the design or implementation of the system.
The Missouri Education Association credits educators with leading the information campaign that helped voters understand the issues at stake and the adverse effects the measure would have had on students and schools.
Illinois voters said ‘heck yeah’ when they were asked whether individuals with incomes greater than $1 million should pay more of their fair share in taxes in order to increase support for public schools. But as a non-binding advisory question, it asks lawmakers to address the issue without impacting any existing laws.
NBC Chicago reported that the initiative originally proposed by Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago would raise approximately $1 billion annually for schools (based on Internal Revenue Service data showing that in 2011 more than 14,500 Illinois tax returns had adjusted gross incomes of at least $1 million).
Gov. Quinn supported the measure. He was not successful in his bid for re-election.
QUALITY EARLY LEARNING
Voters in Hawaii rejected a ballot measure that would have used public money on private pre-kindergarten programs. Opponents of the measure strongly believe that the state should indeed expand early learning programs, but by establishing fully funded preschool through the public education system.
“The Hawaii State Teachers Association and Hawaii’s public school teachers want to ensure that all of our children are treated fairly and equitably,” said physical education teacher and HSTA President Will Okabe. The flawed proposal, he explained, would “only benefit a few at the sacrifice of the state’s neediest families.”
Not all the votes have been counted yet, so it’s too early to say for sure whether Washington state passed its class size ballot measure. Supporters are optimistic that voters have approved the initiative to reduce the average class size of 30–one of the largest in the country–to 17 for K-3 and 25 for grades 4-12. High-poverty schools would have even lower class sizes.
Phyllis Campano, a special education teacher and Seattle Education Association Vice President, gathered 1,351 of the total 325,000 signatures that got the measure on the ballot.
“I had my class size increase after about two years after I started working in Seattle by about 20 percent, and in special education that’s a lot. It made a huge difference in how much the kids got, how much I could get to them, how much they could learn, how much I could present. I know how important this really is to our students all over the state,” said Campano.
If passed, there’s no question the measure will benefit students. The action has also raised educator morale.
“It was one of the biggest actions of solidarity that we’ve had in the state in a really long time,” said Campano.