By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - Voters in several states will weigh in next month on some of the most contentious issues in public education, including teacher tenure, charter schools and merit pay for teachers, as a national fight over education reform hits the ballot box.
The campaigns have been fierce and often nasty.
In one corner: proponents of dramatically overhauling public education, including several of America's wealthiest families, led by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton. They seek to inject more free-market forces into the education system by requiring schools to compete for students and teachers to compete for pay raises.
In the opposite corner: Teachers unions and their allies, on the left, who say the reformers' proposals would strip resources from the public schools without boosting student achievement.
Traditionally allied with Democrats, union leaders these days are sounding Republican themes to woo voters in conservative states such as Idaho, Georgia and South Dakota. They're warning that the proposed reforms would mean higher taxes, bigger government and intrusive state meddling in local affairs.
Polling has been sparse, so it's not clear which corner has the upper hand overall. Here's a state-by-state look at several key ballot measures.
Voters in Washington will decide whether their state should join 41 others in allowing charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, sometimes by for-profit corporations.
Similar measures have been on the ballot three times in Washington. Three times, voters have rejected them, most recently in 2004, when a charter measure failed by a margin of 16 percentage points. Objections include concern that privately run charter schools would siphon tax dollars from struggling public schools. The state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that Washington already underfunded the public school system so severely that it had failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide every child with a basic education.
Charter backers argue that the system doesn't necessarily need more money - it needs innovation and competition, in the form of privately run schools not bound by the same union rules and district policies that govern traditional schools. Nationally, charter schools often boast longer school days, stricter disciplinary rules and academic programs more tightly focused on standardized tests in math and reading. Results vary wildly: Some far outshine local public schools, many others perform about the same or worse.
The Washington ballot would authorize up to 40 charter schools in the state over the next five years, with priority for those serving high-needs communities. The measure also lets parents and teachers at any public school - no matter how wealthy or high-performing - band together to demand that it be converted into a charter, a provision similar to the "parent trigger" laws enacted in several states that let parents seize control of failing public schools and fire the staff or turn them into charters.
Supporters have raised more than $9 million for an all-out advertising blitz that portrays charter schools as the best hope for troubled students at risk of dropping out. Nearly all that funding comes from a handful of wealthy donors, led by Gates, who has given more than $3 million, and Walton, who has kicked in $1.7 million.
Gates said through a spokesperson that he's "a big believer" in quality charter schools as a force to spur innovation. Walton, who lives in Arkansas, declined to comment on her political contributions.
The opposition has raised far less; its major donors are state and national teachers unions, which have given about $380,000 in total. Their latest pitch is an animated YouTube video that portrays a disheveled "charter fairy" spreading myths about the success of charter schools.
Charters are also a hot issue across the country in Georgia. The state already has more than 200 such schools; next month, voters will decide whether to create a special state commission to review proposals for still more of them.
Local school boards have traditionally controlled charter school permits in Georgia. The state board of education can also give authorization. But charter backers say they need another route as well - an appointed commission created solely to consider charter applications.
The ballot measure has drawn support from several out-of-state, for-profit companies that manage charter schools. The chain Charter Schools USA donated $100,000, as did K12 Inc, which runs online schools nationwide. Walton contributed $250,000.
Several leading conservative and religious-right groups, including the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity and Ralph Reed's Faith & Freedom Coalition, have also backed the cause.
Opponents have sought to stir voters by noting that many of the largest donors backing the charter measure come from outside Georgia. "Get real, folks. Out-of-state, for-profit corporations want to change the state constitution, and it's not because they care about your child's education," said Jane Langley, who runs the opposition campaign.
Charter backers respond that their out-of-state donors are giving to support Georgia parents who want to organize independent charter schools in their local communities, said Mark Peevy, who runs the "vote yes" campaign. "It doesn't get any more local," he said.
In Idaho the ballot includes three measures that amount to a referendum on an aggressive education reform agenda promoted by the Republican governor, Butch Otter, and his state schools chief, Tom Luna.
Voters will decide whether to retain or jettison legislation that phases out teacher tenure, lets parents have a say in teacher evaluations, and limits collective bargaining to salaries and benefits, so teachers can't negotiate things like their schedules. Also up for popular vote: a merit pay plan that gives teachers bonuses for boosting student test scores, mentoring rookies, or serving in hard-to-fill jobs. Finally, voters will accept or reject plans to give each high school student a laptop, part of Luna's plan to inject more technology into classrooms and nudge kids to take more courses online.
Unions have led a ferocious effort to block all three measures, lumping them together as the "Luna laws."
The National Education Association has given more than $1 million to the ballot campaign and the state branch has contributed another $280,000. Their main argument in the deeply conservative state: The measures waste tax dollars and impose state rules and bureaucracy on school systems that should be run locally.
Superintendent Luna acknowledges that even some of his fellow Republicans have been swayed by the union ads, which depict careless kids ruining their state-funded laptops and suggest costs will rocket out of control. But he recently received a boost from a wealthy backer, businessman Frank VanderSloot, who is spending heavily in the final weeks of the campaign to back the measures. This week, VanderSloot unveiled a TV ad that uses footage of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney attacking teachers unions as special interests defending a failed status quo.
Win or lose, Luna vows to keep fighting. "Reforming education is going to be disruptive," he said. "It's not going to be easy."
Another referendum on merit pay and teacher tenure will go before voters in South Dakota. The teachers union there is seeking to repeal a law that phases out tenure and creates a new, statewide system of evaluating and ranking teachers.
Voters in several other states - most notably Arizona and California by dint of size - will decide on tax hikes meant to raise revenue for public education. Many local jurisdictions also have funding initiatives on the ballot.
Miami-Dade County in Florida, for instance, is asking voters to approve $1.2 billion in bonds to repair and rehab hundreds of aging schools. Former National Basketball Association star Alonzo Mourning supports the measure as vital first step to improve public education, noting at a recent rally that many urban districts have graduation rates of just 50 percent. "If that doesn't hit you … I don't know what will."
(Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami; editing by Lee Aitken and Prudence Crowther)