Higher-ed balloting brings funds and changes

Most attention was fixed on the presidential and congressional elections on Nov. 4, but issues closer to home also figured large in Tuesday’s voting. Fifteen higher education ballot measures were at stake, as the Democrats’ congressional majority grew and Sen. Barack Obama swept to victory pledging college-tuition reform.

Many states’ propositions would bring much-needed funds to higher education during the country’s economic downturn, and most passed with comfortable majorities. Other ballot initiatives had major social implications. A Nebraska measure that will prohibit public colleges and universities from using affirmative action programs was approved by 58 percent of voters. A similar affirmative action ban in Colorado was narrowly rejected, with 50.6 percent of voters saying no. 

In Missouri, voters approved a ballot measure that will raise the state’s gaming tax by 1 percent, bringing up to $7 million a year to public colleges and universities. The tax increase will also provide $130 million annually for K-12 schools.

In New Mexico, voters approved measures that will bulk up universities’ infrastructure. The ballot initiatives call for more than $130 million for college construction projects and $58 million for renovation and construction of research facilities, many that are on New Mexico’s college campuses.

Several state measures succeeded that are designed to fund education through increases in gambling revenue – including Maryland’s approved effort to establish 15,000 slot machines and bolster dwindling public school budgets. But other initiatives fell short on Election Day. Only 43 percent of Florida voters approved of a measure to increase the sales tax for up to five years to better fund community colleges. In Maine, 54 percent of voters were opposed to building a casino in Oxford County. About 10 percent of revenues from the project would have gone toward higher education programs such as assistance with student loan repayment and an expansion of courses and facilities for Maine’s community college system.

California’s ballot measure that would have brought $150 million to college programs that trained students in renewable energy and other environmentally friendly technology lost by a landslide: nearly 60 percent of voters disapproved it. On the other hand, children’s hospitals run by the University of California system will receive a portion of $980 million in state bonds approved by voters in another of the state’s ballot measures.

Colleges and universities in Massachusetts once again escaped a potentially drastic cut in state funds that would hurt campuses statewide. A ballot question would have decreased the state income tax in 2009 and eliminated it altogether in 2010, slashing the state budget by more than $12 billion – about 40 percent – according to the state’s estimates. The cuts in tax revenue would have required immediate reductions in Massachusetts’ higher education funding. About 70 percent of voters decided against the tax repeal. It is the second time this decade Massachusetts voters have struck down an effort to do away with the state’s income tax.

With the Democratic Party bolstering its majorities in the House and Senate Tuesday, Obama could push for higher education laws that he has touted throughout his nearly two-year run for president. Obama’s higher-education agenda includes a $4,000 refundable tuition tax credit for students who complete at least 100 hours of community service during their college careers. This measure could be difficult to pass early in his term, however, because Congress will continue to grapple with a financial crisis that has frozen credit markets and slowed job creation. Nonpartisan analysts say offering a tuition tax credit to American college students would cost billions.

Obama’s tuition-credit plan also calls for a more streamlined approach to applying for federal student aid. Under the plan, families would be able to apply for the tax credit-volunteer exchange by checking a box on their income tax forms.

Regardless of the feasibility or timing of specific education initiatives, the president-elect will want a top education advisor to help him implement desired change. This puts special pressure on Obama to pick an effective U.S. secretary of education.

Most presidents select educators with lengthy resumes in K-12 school system to fill the important education secretary position. Two candidates to fill the Obama Administration’s top education spot have higher education backgrounds. Lauro F. Cavazos Jr., who served as secretary of education under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush from 1988-90, is considered a potential Obama pick. Cavazos, the first Hispanic to serve in the United States Cabinet, was president of Texas Tech University from 1980-88.

Obama campaign advisor Linda Darling-Hammond is another possible contender to become education secretary. Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University, is known for heading the School Redesign Network, an organization established in 2000 at Stanford that advocates for research and focuses on secondary public education.

Other candidates for education secretary include Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, whose gubernatorial platform has included a number of education reforms, and Arne Duncan, schools chief in Chicago and a longtime advocate for charter schools, an initiative unpopular with Democratic-supporting national and local teacher unions. Napolitano pushed for a law that offers voluntary full-day kindergarten classes throughout Arizona.

Denny Carter

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