Holly Currier, an instructional assistant in Andover, Massachusetts, sees firsthand “how underfunding and understaffing deprive students of what they deserve every day.” So, when she had the opportunity to canvass for a ballot measure, dubbed the Fair Share Amendment (FSA), that generates money for public schools by taxing the state’s highest incomes, she went for it.
It’s a good thing that Currier and other school stakeholders like her put in the effort: the Fair Share Amendment won, but only narrowly — possibly due to an aggressive opposition campaign backed by Massachusetts billionaires. Currier explained to Jacobin that this victory allows educators and students “to raise our expectations beyond the absolute bare minimum,” setting the stage for future efforts.
This election, voters in numerous states supported ballot measures that increase school funding, making a useful counterpoint to the misleading right-wing narrative that parents and communities are ready to turn away from public schools.
Coast to Coast
Until now, Massachusetts has had a flat 5 percent income tax, meaning that low-wage earners like Holly Currier end up paying a higher effective tax rate than multibillionaires like Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The state’s billionaires have seen their wealth expand at an alarming rate in recent years, while schools have been suffering from layoffs, understaffing, and serious capital spending gaps. The Fair Share Amendment addresses this problem by adding a 4 percent surtax only on personal annual income exceeding $1 million and constitutionally dedicating that money to public education and infrastructure.
The FSA is the product of a seven-year push for progressive tax reform to enable Massachusetts schools and transportation systems to properly function. In 2018, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of a group of big business–backed plaintiffs attempting to block the measure from appearing on the ballot. But the FSA coalition, led by progressive groups and organized labor and featuring hefty support from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, refused to back down. This year’s Question 1 was identical to the 2018 measure, but because it made its way to the ballot via legislative referral, it avoided the restrictions placed on citizens’ initiatives.
Massachusetts isn’t alone. Colorado’s Proposition FF, spearheaded by parents, students, teachers, and food justice organizations, taxes the rich to provide free school meals for all Colorado children. Only households with a federal adjusted gross income of more than $300,000 will see higher taxes in the form of limited deductions. In addition to helping cover free lunches, this money will fund wage raises for cafeteria workers and grants to help school food-service programs source ingredients locally.
During the pandemic, the US Department of Agriculture temporarily suspended its means-testing requirements, making possible the universally free school meals that anti-hunger groups have long advocated. Research shows that free school meals reduce childhood hunger and improve attendance and learning outcomes. But means-testing makes it much harder for children who need the meals to access them — and adds stigma to the program for those who do participate.
Congress failed to extend universal free meals when it had the chance to do so, but a number of states have taken matters into their own hands. The success of Proposition FF demonstrates something that should be obvious: feeding hungry kids is popular.
Meanwhile, New Mexican voters decisively supported a constitutional amendment that injects funding into K-12 schools and early childhood programs, making New Mexico the first state in the nation to constitutionally guarantee a right to early childhood education.
Amendment 1 authorizes additional annual withdrawals from a state trust funded by oil and gas revenue, directing roughly $100 million to K-12 schools and $150 million to early childhood programs. Lawmakers plan to use the latter to cover universal pre-K and childcare (currently funded in part by dwindling federal pandemic relief money) and home visiting programs for new parents, in recognition of the state’s high levels of child poverty.
This is the fruit of over a decade-long fight by grassroots groups who understand the vital importance of early learning and appreciate the need to pay childcare workers a living wage. To make this win possible, progressives had to mount successful primary challenges to a handful of conservative Democrats who were standing in the way of badly needed changes. Early-years advocates hope this victory will blaze a national trail toward more accessible early childhood education — a goal that has broad, bipartisan support.
In California, Proposition 28 directs an additional $1 billion per year in state money to arts and music education in K-12 schools. Not exactly an initiative by ordinary citizens, this measure was introduced by billionaire philanthropist and former Los Angeles schools superintendent Austin Beutner and backed by a star-studded list of Hollywood and music industry names. But it was endorsed by teachers’ unions, who see it as a way to advance equity in arts education. Voters’ support for the measure indicates recognition that art and music add inspiration to school days otherwise dominated by boring high-stakes test preparation. Californians, it seems, want schools to focus on beauty and creativity — not just growth industry career skills.
The Uniting Issue
The success of these ballot measures — to say nothing of successful local school funding measures — demonstrates that across party lines, voters care about their public schools.
In fact, these days school funding may be just about the only issue on which Republican voters are willing to break with their party. Democrats would do well to prioritize teacher pay, school infrastructure, healthy meals, early learning, and other broadly popular material issues in education, rather than allowing Republicans to dominate the K-12 discourse with Koch-funded cultural outrage. The argument might go something like this: They want you to worry about pronoun choices while kids are literally getting nosebleeds from overheated classrooms. How absurd is that?
But whether or not Democrats get their act together, ballot measures are an important tool for building coalitions to fight for majoritarian change. It’s a lot simpler to knock on doors for something as straightforward as school funding than it is to try to convince voters that a particular candidate will look out for their interests once in office.
Reflecting on the Fair Share Amendment’s win, Currier told Jacobin that “it brings hope for a day when no educator must walk half a mile in search of a functioning printer to provide students with special needs a modified assignment” to which they’re legally entitled. Whatever your background, it’s easy enough to get on board with that sentiment.