This blog specializes in bad news. But here’s some good news for public education from this month’s elections: Nine of the 10 Indiana school districts that asked voters for permission to raise local property taxes to support education were successful.
Prior to this year, fewer than half the referendums that took place since Indiana’s current school-funding laws went into effect in 2008 won public approval. With the May 2014 results, schools have finally topped the .500 mark: 52 of 102 have succeeded.
School-funding referendums in Indiana come in two varieties: They can raise taxes to build schools; or they can augment state funding for a district’s general fund, which pays teacher and staff salaries and other operating expenses. Over the years, the mix has been about half-and-half between construction and general-fund referendums. But this year, eight of 10 were to boost general-fund spending. All those proposals passed. Some were close, though; three passed with 51 percent or less of the vote.
In at least two – White River Valley in Greene County and Eminence in Morgan County – local officials said losing would force the district to close and consolidate with a nearby school district. Voters didn’t want that to happen. The Eminence measure passed with 87 percent of the vote; WRV with 54 percent.
The results also continue a trend in which school districts do better holding their referendums in the May primary rather than the November general election. Since 2010, spring votes have succeeded 66 percent of the time and fall votes 28 percent of the time, according to a database maintained by the Center for Evaluation and Education Progress at IU. Turnouts are low in May, and a well-organized campaign supported by parents and teachers is more likely to succeed then than in November.
Nine out of 10 this spring is a real success – the best record ever. It’s tempting to think it’s a sign the public recognizes the importance of local schools. But more likely the message is mixed:
- Remember, there are about 300 school districts in Indiana, so the overwhelming majority aren’t asking voters to raise taxes to provide more funding. That may be because they’re doing just fine, financially. But it’s more likely school officials know passing a referendum is an uphill battle.
- As Terry Spradlin, then with IU CEEP, told me a year ago, school officials have become smarter and more cautious about going to the voters with their hands out. When the odds are against them, they’re choosing not to risk a loss.
- One of the biggest variables is whether a school district and its supporters put together a strong campaign to win public support. All else being equal, a referendum with engaged parent volunteers, supportive teachers and PR-savvy administrators is more likely to win.
There is, of course, a downside to Indiana’s growing reliance on property-tax referendums to support schools: It risks increasing the gap between rich and poor. Districts with plenty of property wealth can raise money with little pain to taxpayers. Property-poor districts may be out of luck.