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What Happened to Public Education on Election Night?

The rescue of public education must come from the grassroots, from a coalition led by parents and teachers.

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Georgia: Voters approved constitutional Amendment One (58.6 to 41.4 percent) to allow the state government to accept charter school applications, bypassing local school districts. Until the vote, local school boards reviewed applications, and applicants could appeal rejections to the State Board of Education. The amendment authorizes a new type of school: state charter schools. The campaign turned into a cause célèbre for charter proponents, who raised over $2 million to support the amendment. They included Arkansas Wal-Mart heiress and Walton Family Foundation board member Alice Walton ($600,000), Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst ($250,000), Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus ($250,000), the Virginia-based cyber school company K12 ($100,000), charter school operator J.C. Huizenga ($75,000), and Florida-based for-profit school operator Charter Schools USA ($50,000). The out-of-state money overwhelmed opponents of the amendment; they raised only $123,243, mostly from Georgia public school officials.

Another wrinkle in the Georgia amendment story is the wording on the ballot: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities? YES ( ) NO ( ).” This obfuscates what the amendment does. Citizens could find the full text of the amendment—dense language that revises three paragraphs in two different sections of Article VIII—on the Secretary of State’s website or at the offices of county probate courts. Summaries were published in the “official legal organ” of each county. Not surprisingly, most voters relied on the ballot language, and some were angry about being misled. There’s no likely recourse: the politicians in power (in this case, Republicans) control the wording, and Georgia’s courts have refused to review ballot language. Had the intent of the amendment been described clearly on the ballot, it’s possible that voters would have said no—not necessarily because they dislike charter schools but because they wanted decision-making to remain in the districts where they live.

Idaho: Voters defeated Proposition 1 (57.29 to 42.71 percent), which would have phased out renewable contracts for teachers, abolished formal review for anyone fired, allowed school boards to reduce the salaries of staff with renewable contracts without due process, limited collective bargaining to salaries and benefits, eliminated provisions for fact finding in professional negotiations, and more.

Voters defeated Proposition 2 (57.98 to 42.02 percent), which would have instituted a merit bonus program for teachers based on student scores on state-mandated tests, other measures of student performance, leadership, or taking a hard-to-fill position.

Voters defeated Proposition 3 (66.71 to 33.29 percent), which would have mandated two online courses for high-school graduation (a great boon to software companies) and shifted $14.8 million annually from teacher salaries to reform programs, including providing a laptop computer for every high-school student and teacher.

The propositions were actually a referendum on three laws passed in 2011, dubbed the “Luna Laws” after State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. A total of $6.4 million was spent on the campaign. Proponents of the laws collected $2.8 million, including $1.6 million from conservative billionaire Frank VanderSloot, $250,000 from supermarket heir Joe Scott, $200,00 from NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and $100,000 from Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst. Opponents raised even more—about $3.6 million, including $2.8 million from the National Education Association, the nation’s largest union and chief architect of the victory. The defeat of Proposition 3 automatically canceled the state’s $182-million contract with Hewlett-Packard Co., signed two weeks before the vote. The deal was yet another reform-generated corporate windfall: the state would have rented the computers and also paid for all loss, theft, and damage.

Indiana: Voters elected Democrat Glenda Ritz as Superintendent of Public Instruction over incumbent Republican Tony Bennett (53 to 47 percent). Bennett, a hero among ed reformers, implemented what is considered the most aggressive program in the nation. It includes every item on the reform agenda as well as the largest voucher program and the only one not limited to low-income students and students from low-performing schools. Allowing middle-class parents to take their per-child allotment of tax dollars to private schools speeds up privatization of the entire system. Bennett raised almost $1.7 million for his campaign, including contributions from Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton ($200,000), NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg ($80,000), and Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, whose foundation trains ed-reform school administrators ($100,000).