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By Amanda Litvinov
Election 2016 was another tough one 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.
But voters in Maine, California, and Washoe County, Nevada, showed strong support for students and educators by passing ballot measures to raise revenues they will invest in their public schools.
Maine voters approved Question 2, a measure that restores a greater degree of tax fairness and increases revenue for schools by instituting a 3 percent surcharge to taxable income above $200,000. Maine schools stand to gain an additional $157 million per year for direct funding of classroom education.
Since Gov. Paul LePage was elected in 2010, wealthy residents have received two major reductions in their tax rates. Meanwhile, the modest tax breaks that moderate and lower income families received were all but nullified by a sales tax increase and property tax increases.
Those reckless tax breaks for wealthy citizens who don’t need them caused major declines in state revenue compared with 2011 levels, and led to cuts education.
All across the state, districts have been forced to cut programs and hold off on updating textbooks and technology. According to Maine’s Department of Education, state funding for public schools has not kept up with costs for the last six years. The impact is worst on schools in poorer areas that do not have the option to increase local revenues.
Although the surcharge voters just approved will only affect roughly 2 percent of all Maine households, it will generate an estimated $157 million per year–a significant boost for education. The funds will be distributed to districts so they can determine which student supports are most needed.
Mike Thurston, a high school social studies teacher from Winslow, Maine, joined hundreds of other educators and parents across the state working together through a coalition called Stand Up for Students to collect more than 95,000 signatures to qualify the initiative.
“Almost every single person I spoke with while I was gathering signatures thought this was a great idea,” Thurston said. “Everyone wants students to have a great education, no matter what part of the state they’re from or what their families are facing.”
As of November 7, California public schools were at risk of losing $4 billion per year funding.
But on Nov. 8, California voters approved Proposition 55, which extends for 12 years a surtax on the top 2 percent of earners—those with annual incomes over $250,000 and couples with annual incomes over $500,000.
The surtax was first approved by voters in 2012. The steady funding it provided quickly stabilized disastrous conditions in some schools, like those described by Tamara Madison, whose district suffered severe budget cuts in the wake of the economic recession.
“My school endured cuts year after year between 2008 and 2012,” said Madison, an English and French teacher at Banning High School in Wilmington. “Teachers were laid off, class sizes grew, and more and more was expected of the rest of us.”
She recalls spending part of her free period each day cleaning surfaces and sweeping the floor because reductions to the custodial staff meant some spaces simply couldn’t be cleaned regularly.
Conditions in many districts began to improve in the 2013-14 school year as districts received quarterly payments from the protected fund established by Prop. 30, providing consistent revenue that did not depend on the state budget and that the legislature could not touch.
But that funding source was soon to expire.
Educators were part of a broad coalition supporting Prop. 55, and helped gather more than 275,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
“California’s voters are truly committed to providing our students with a quality public education and their overwhelming support of Prop. 55 shows they never want to go back to the days of devastating cuts that drastically impacted our schools and communities,” said elementary teacher and California Teachers Association President Eric Heins in a statement.
WASHOE COUNTY, NEVADA
Voters in the greater Reno area approved a half-cent sales tax to fix some serious long-standing issues with school facilities. First, there aren’t enough of them, and the buildings they have are too small and falling apart.
“We’ve got more than 225 portable modular classrooms in parking lots and playgrounds,” social studies teacher Phillip Kaiser told EducationVotes. “At McQueen High School where I teach, we’ve got what I call seven doublewides—that’s 14 classrooms—out in the parking lot.”
Those trailers have been there since Kaiser started teaching there 17 years ago.
McQueen High School is one of eight middle and high schools that would have been forced into a double-session schedule if the ballot measure had failed. That means students would have attended school in two shifts, with some waiting at bus stops at 4:30 a.m. and others returning home from classes as late as 7 p.m.
But conditions should improve soon now that voters passed WC-1.
The measure was backed by SOS Washoe, a coalition of businesses and community groups as well as the local and state education associations.
“This is a huge victory for our 64,000 students,”said Traci Davis, superintendent of Washoe County Schools and a former educator and principal.
“Because of this vote, we will be able to get classes out of hallways and common areas and into classrooms where they belong. We can get our kids out of those old portables … and more students will be able to concentrate because the roof won’t be leaking and dripping into a bucket next to their desk,” Davis said.
“To our community, I would like to say a heartfelt thank you for this huge investment in our students, teachers, and our shared future.”