Just a year ago, the issue of education in politics seemed murky. While education started out as a key topic in the 2004 presidential race, the issue faded as the race came to its conclusion. In actuality, there weren't stark differences between President Bush and John Kerry, so voters used other issues to decide whom to vote for.
But last month, there was no mistaking the public's thoughts on education in several major initiatives across the country. In four key measures, two statewide and two from big cities, voters agreed to put their tax dollars into education. These four decisions prove that voters will agree to spend for specific plans to improve education.
Let's consider the teacher-related measures first. In Denver, nearly 60 percent of voters approved an additional $25 million in new property taxes to fund a new way to pay teachers. Denver's pay-for-performance plan, more than five years in the making, aims to reward teachers for raising student achievement, not the number of years they've been in the classroom. The new system is expected to dramatically increase teachers' salaries.
Mayor John W. Kickenlooper, Superintendent Michael Bennet, the city council and numerous business leaders supported the property tax increase. The only real opposition to the ballot question came from a group of teachers who said they thought it would punish teachers based on where they taught while encouraging all teachers to teach to the test.
In California, voters rejected all eight of the referendums put forth by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, including one that would have lengthened the time it takes for teachers to be tenured. In a state that is full of government workers, the fight about teacher tenure was a big battle. The governor reportedly used $7.2 million of his own money to back the eight referendums, while the California Teacher's Union used about $60 million to fight off Proposition 74, the tenure proposal.
In looking at general education spending, Colorado voters narrowly agreed to suspend the provision of the state constitution's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. Keeping this measure would have ensured that the state government refunded an estimated $3.7 billion to taxpayers over the next five years. Instead, that money will stay in state government and mainly be used to pay for higher education and road repairs.
Colorado voters almost tossed another $2.1 billion in the pot, too, narrowly defeating another measure that would have let the state borrow that amount for more road work. Political observers concluded that this measure would have passed if the money had been earmarked for education.
The biggest margin of victory in these four topics belonged to the Los Angeles Unified School district. As The Los Angeles Times reported: "On a day when they rejected everything else put before them, voters sounded an unmistakable vote of confidence in the ongoing push to build and repair hundreds of L.A. district campuses by easily passing a $4 billion construction bond."
Closer to home, voters in Brookfield, Conn., were kind to this editor. I was re-elected to the board of education for a full four-year term. After being on the board for 16 months, I'm looking forward to continuing to make more of a difference, and working to convince our town's voters the same thing the above examples show: that tax money prudently spent on education is always worth it.