State ballot measures’ impacts on K-12 schools

Ballots in the 2020 presidential election also included a variety of state measures that could impact education. “The biggest trend is that a lot of them had to do with raising money for education,” said Damion Pechota, a policy analyst at Education Commission of the States. 

While a limited number of state ballot initiatives specifically mentioned COVID-19 as their impetus, support or opposition for measures passed was punctuated by the ongoing pandemic, according to Education Dive’s analysis. 

From tax changes to gun control and K-12 curriculum shifts, here are the major takeaways from numerous state ballot measures that were passed on Nov. 3.

New vice taxes expand funds for schools

Four states Arizona, South Dakota, New Jersey and Montana — moved to legalize recreational marijuana, building on the number of states that have used its sales tax revenue to fund education in recent years. South Dakota, for example, will be channeling 50% of its revenue to the state’s public schools after costs of the amendment’s implementation are covered. 

“Sin taxes” generating education funds in other states were also expanded to include additional sources of revenue, such as Maryland’s new tax on sports betting and Nebraska’s tax on gambling at racetracks. Voters in other states passed increases to already-existing taxes, like the expansion of Colorado’s cigarette tax to include a new tax on nicotine products

“Previously they taxed cigarettes, but nicotine comes in new forms, allowing vaping to also be charged when it wasn’t before,” Pechota said. “You’re seeing more vices be added [to states] and kind of expanding the revenue pool that way.” 

In Oregon, which made history by legalizing psilocybin mushrooms, where the funding will be directed is unclear.

However, for some, vice taxes to boost ed funding leave much to be desired. 

“While we have seen voters be more supportive of sin taxes,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, “we can’t continue to solve this problem with Band-Aids,” adding that the organization is pushing for a systemic fix to ed funding. 

Arizona tax on high-earners ‘stands out’

Included in Arizona’s ballot was Proposition 208, which voters approved to increase public education funding by collecting an additional 3.5% in taxes from those with taxable annual income over $250,000 for single people or $500,000 for joint filings. The funds will support teacher and classroom support staff salaries, teacher mentoring and retention programs, career and technical education programs, and the Arizona Teachers Academy.

“We’ve never seen measure like that passed by the voters to increase taxes on income high earners before,” said Pechota, whose organization has been tracking state ballot measures since 2018. 

Similar language was included in a 2018 ballot measure in Colorado but failed. In California, a similar measure was proposed in 2019 but didn’t make it onto the ballot.

“[Arizona’s] really stands out,” Pechota added. 

Montana initiative could increase guns on school grounds

In Montana, voters approved LR-130, which prevents local governments, like school boards, from regulating permitted, concealed weapons. While there is a separate state law that prohibits weapons in school buildings, Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton worries the initiative may create a loophole for those seeking to concealed-carry a gun on outdoor school grounds like football stadiums, parking lots and sports fields. 

For boards, the measure creates a “sort of artificial line at the school door and the inability to regulate right outside that school door,” he said.

The Montana Shooting Sports Association told Education Dive in an email that LR-130 “will have zero impact” on school boards’ regulation of concealed weapons on school grounds, like parking lots, “because school boards never had such authority.” 

“The bottom line is that school boards lost no authority with LR-130, and can be argued to have gained authority since cities and counties can no longer interfere with the exceptions school boards are authorized by state law to make,” MSSA President Gary Marbut said.

I’d be grasping at straws if I told [boards] that LR-130 doesn’t apply to them,” said Melton, who has been an education lawyer since 1996. He expects school districts will continue to prohibit weapons on school grounds until a potential court case challenges their authority under LR-130, but fears the change will increase weapons on school grounds and at school events in the interim. 

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