By Amanda Litvinov / photo courtesy of Arizona Education Association member Jay Barbuto (pictured, left)
Although political candidates get most of the attention during election season, ballot measures are another important way that voters make their voices heard.
Educators are often involved in organizing efforts to get measures on the ballot and advocate for their passage. While many measures concern school funding, educators have also worked in recent years to pass measures that help working families, support public safety, and protect voting rights.
Election 2020 was no exception.
A BRIGHTER FUTURE IN ARIZONA
One of the biggest wins educators achieved through ballot measures this year was Arizona’s Proposition 208, a historic measure to tax the state’s highest income-earners and restore $1 billion in critical funding for K-12 schools, lower class sizes, and address teacher shortages. And 25 percent of the new funds will be dedicated to hiring and improving pay for student support services personnel, including classroom aides and bus drivers.
Fueled by #RedForEd energy, educators helped collect 436,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot. Despite broad public support to invest more in schools, state legislators simply weren’t getting the job done. So, educators and parents were determined to take the issue directly to voters.
“One of the most important things we learned from the educator walkout of 2018 was how to tell our story, to have meaningful conversations about why we need to invest in education,” said Jay Barbuto, a 7th– and 8th–grade English teacher from Phoenix who serves as co-president of the Phoenix Elementary Classroom Teachers Association.
Millions witnessed Arizona’s historic 6-day walkout in the spring of 2018, when more than 75,000 educators and allies flooded the streets of Phoenix wearing crimson shirts to demand that the governor and legislators reverse a decade of devastating education cuts. But far fewer people realized how much organizing educators had done at the local level prior to the massive protest.
“Before we walked out, we walked in,” said Marisol Garcia, vice president of the Arizona Education Association and a former middle school teacher. “All the educators would gather across the street from their schools to talk to the community about what we’re fighting for.” More than 110,000 people checked in at the final round of walk-ins.
“Then we had local school boards pass resolutions of support for the Red for Ed movement, and once we had the school boards supporting us, we had the superintendents supporting us,” Garcia explained. “Growing the movement at the local level meant we truly had broad support, and the trust of the community we needed in the 2020 elections.”
REGAINING A FOOTHOLD IN LOUISIANA
Residents in Louisiana voted down Amendment 5, putting a stop to special-negotiated local tax breaks that allow large oil and gas corporations to siphon millions of dollars from public schools and other essential services.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers decided to ask voters to add a new tax break to the state constitution that would allow manufacturers to negotiate lower tax bills with local governments.
“Our members made sure that voters rejected the idea in a landslide,” said Dr. Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), shortly after the election. “Together we fought off an amendment that would have drained millions from local parish budgets, put local jobs at risk, hiked taxes, and hurt public education in Louisiana,” Mills wrote on her Facebook page.
“This win just proves that when LAE members use their voices and work together, we win!”
Louisiana educators have worked for years to put an end to excessive corporate subsidies draining resources for public schools. First, they helped elect Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2015 because of his strong commitment to public education. In 2016, Edwards issued an executive order empowering local taxing authorities to vote for or against industrial tax exemptions—a power that had been out of their hands for more than 80 years.
That meant locals had the power to pressure their school boards to turn down their portion of the tax break, keeping that money in the public schools instead.
That’s exactly what the East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators set out to do in 2017, explaining to the community how corporate tax abatements caused severe fiscal distress within the school system and why the school board should use its new authority to stop giving away local resources to powerful petrochemical companies.
Educators leading the charge endured 7-hour school board meetings and some nasty name-calling from those who opposed their campaign. But their efforts paid off. In 2019, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board denied Exxon-Mobil a $2.9 million abatement, a story so big it made the New York Times.
“Our state is one of the richest in resources but has some of the lowest test scores and worst health indicators,” said school psychologist Alexandra Clark.
“Maybe some of these incentives made sense 80 years ago but these huge corporations that make billions should not be taking this kind of money out of the local schools.”
Here are some of the other 2020 ballot measure wins made possible by educator organizing:
Maryland voters overwhelmingly approved Question 1, which enables the state legislature to have more power in allocating funding for public education and other essential services.
Maryland is the only state whose legislature can’t change or add items to the governor’s budget. But with the passage of Question 1, starting in 2024, state lawmakers will have more power to balance the state budget while investing in key priorities like public schools.
Colorado voters took steps to protect vital funding for public schools by passing two key ballot measures that were supported by the Colorado Education Association (CEA). Prop EE institutes a state tax on tobacco and nicotine that will go toward funding public schools and universal pre-K programs. Voters also approved Amendment B, which protects funding for schools by repealing an amendment to the state constitution that froze property tax rates and put public services at risk. By repealing that amendment, voters prevented nearly $500 million in cuts to school districts.
In acknowledging these victories, CEA cautioned that these are just first steps to ensuring Colorado students and educators have the resources they need in the classroom. Far greater change is needed if state leaders are to make education a top priority, after shortchanging students by more than $10 billion dollars over the past decade.
Florida voters passed Amendment 2, which raises the minimum wage from $8.56 per hour to $15 per hour by 2026. This much-needed increase will boost the pay of around 15 percent of the education support professionals represented by the Florida Education Association (FEA).
FEA has advocated for pay increases for education support professionals as lawmakers worked to increase base teacher pay.
“Despite their importance to the well-being and education of Florida’s students, these education staff professionals are routinely ignored in very important conversations, including those currently happening around Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to increase teacher pay,” wrote FEA Vice President and classroom paraprofessional Carole Gauronskas in an op-ed. She is the first education support professional elected to serve as an officer of FEA.
“A failure to invest in education support staff will not just be detrimental to those who serve students in all capacities, but a failure for the 2.8 million students they serve every single day.”