Academic journal article Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research

A Typology of Education Ballot Issues: 1906 to 2009

Academic journal article Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research

A Typology of Education Ballot Issues: 1906 to 2009

Article excerpt


Almost half of the states in the U.S. allow voters to determine public policy through direct democracy in the form of ballot issues (also called initiatives, propositions, or questions). As research reported herein indicates, since 1906 more than 200 issues have been considered by voters on a variety of educational policy topics, ranging from higher education, to taxes, to school segregation, to the teaching of evolution, to Bible reading in schools. Yet, as of this writing, no study has attempted analyze the ballot issue landscape, specifically related to education over time. As a result, comparably little systematic attention has been paid to this important and increasingly influential form of educational policy making.

We respond to this need by analyzing all education ballot issues considered by voters across all 24 states that allow for the creation of educational policy through direct democracy. We find that between 1906 and 2009, citizens voted on 206 education ballot issues. Among these, six types emerged: curriculum and instruction, equity, fiscal, infrastructure, morality, and reform. The ballot issue has been used most often for fiscal policy issues (44.8%), followed closely by infrastructure (35.5%). A little more than 10% of the issues dealt with reform efforts, followed by equity (3.9%), morality (3%), and curriculum and instruction (2.5%). Across all types of ballot issues, voters rejected education initiatives by a wide margin: A little more than 66% failed at the ballot box. Nevertheless, it remains a popular vehicle for attempting to shape the educational landscape-the period from 2000 to 2009 saw the most education ballot issues considered by voters. We conclude with how this typology could be used in further research related to educational policy not only in the United States but also in Europe, where direct democracy has enjoyed a long tradition.

The importance of this study is at least two-fold. First, while the legislative process has been the primary method of educational policymaking in the U.S., ballot initiatives have also played an important role and increasingly so in recent decades. Yet, the relative dearth of research on ballot issues in education means we do not fully understand this policymaking process. For example, what types of policies are pursued through direct democracy? How successful (defined as policy adoptions) have attempts at educational policymaking through ballot initiatives been? Second, analyzing policy consequences or outcomes is unquestionably important, but so too is understanding impulses in policymaking. This is particularly so with a process as broad as statewide ballot initiatives. This type of study contributes to a greater understanding of citizen's values, their priorities, and their policy preferences. Practically speaking, it also provides guidance on the efficacy of the ballot initiative as a tool for educational policy change, both broadly and by issue type. Given the resources necessary to implement a ballot initiative, this would prove particularly valuable.


Since the late 19th and early 20th century, initiative, referendum, and recall devices, mainly products of the Progressive Era, have been used-and increasingly so-by groups on both the left and right of U.S. politics to shape public policy (Cronin, 1989). The three are often confused: The popular initiative (used interchangeably with ballot issue in this writing) allows citizens to propose a legislative measure or constitutional amendment; the referendum is when a legislature refers a proposed or existing law to voters for approval or rejection; and the recall allows citizens to remove a public official by filing a petition bearing a specified number of signatures demanding a vote on that official's continued tenure in office. This paper's primary focus involves the state popular ballot initiative or issue (as opposed to referenda or recalls) and the types of policies that have been implemented historically via the direct democracy process. …

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