On Wednesday, Nov. 6, Americans awoke to election returns that gave control of the U.S. Senate to the Republican party. While most national elections seemed to hinge on the President’s popularity, homeland security and a possible war with Iraq, voters showed that the issue of education is still one of their top concerns by supporting successful education ballot initiatives across the country. In a result that speaks volumes about voters’ commitment to the issue of education, voters in state after state approved education initiatives during a time when most states are facing a budget deficit and no clear additional sources of revenue are in sight.
The most remarkable example of the education issue’s appeal among voters was in Florida where voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that restricts school class size while re-electing Gov. Jeb Bush, a staunch opponent of the amendment. During the gubernatorial race, Bush campaigned actively against the amendment, saying that its $27 billion cost would eat up a majority of Florida’s budget. When asked by NBC’s Tom Brokaw how he might pay for the class-size initiative, Bush responded: “Well, you either have to cut spending, or you have to increase taxes, and that’s a dilemma that I posed to the people of the state.” By 2010, the amendment requires that Florida’s classrooms be limited to 18 children in pre-kindergarten through third grade, 22 children in grades four through eight, and 25 children in high school classes. Voters in Florida also adopted constitutional amendments that would require universal pre-kindergarten by the 2005-06 school year.
In California, voters approved the largest bond ever, a $13.05 billion bond for crowded and rundown public schools in spite of a more than $20 billion budget deficit. School districts can also use the money to upgrade wiring for computers and bring Internet access to those classrooms that are currently without. Specifically, the bond would provide $11.4 billion for kindergarten through 12th-grade facilities, and $1.65 billion for higher-education facilities. Of the total, more than $6 billion were allocated expressly for construction of new facilities. The ultimate cost of the bonds, repaid over 30 years, is projected to be about $26 billion. Payment for principal and interest is estimated at $873 million a year.
Despite the record size of the bond, state legislators believed it still would not be enough. It has been estimated that the state will need 46,000 new classrooms in the next five years to relieve overcrowding. Toward that end, a second measure for a $12.3 billion bond will be on the ballot in 2004.
In Houston, voters approved a $808.6 million bond issue that would largely rebuild and renovate deteriorating schools within the Houston Independent School District (HISD). The bond proposal is the second of three that HISD officials say they need to bring all the district’s nearly 300 schools up to standard. The bond’s success comes just a few weeks after Houston received $500,000 in college scholarships from the Broad Foundation as part of a new award that recognizes the best large urban school system in the nation.