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Missouri OKs 'Right to Pray' Initiative, and Other State Ballot News

I wrote in late June on State EdWatch that ballot initiatives related to education in various ways, and in various states like Arizona, should not be ignored during election season despite their relatively low profiles in most cases. As it happens, the last few days have brought a flurry of ballot initiative news. The first I'll deal with involves an old hot-button cultural question, while two others involve teachers' unions, with one playing offense and one playing defense.

One interesting vote has just taken place in Missouri, where voters overwhelmingly said yes to Constitutional Amendment 2. The amendment, which was referred to voters by the state legislature, guarantees that "school children have the right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools," according to a summary provided on Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's website. Students also can't be forced to participate in school activities that violate their religious beliefs, and are also free to express their religious beliefs in oral and written assignments. Worship in schools is permitted as long as it is not "disruptive," says the amendment, which was approved by close to 80 percent of voters, USA Today reported. The amendment could end up being challenged in the courts, with critics arguing that the amendment is redundant and that such worship is already constitutionally protected.

In addition, Missouri's Amendment 2 requires all public schools to display the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.

On a related note, this year Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, signed into law a bill allowing students to deliver "inspirational messages," including prayer, during events, which my colleague Sean Cavanagh wrote about here. That law drew its own criticisms and promises of legal challenges.

Meanwhile, in a ballot initiative similar to Arizona's in its intent, the Nevada State Education Association (the state teachers' union) announced that it has re-filed the appropriately named Education Initiative with Secretary of State Ross Miller's office, after a judge ruled the first version of the initiative ran counter to state law. The initiative, which is also sponsored by the state division of the AFL-CIO, would purportedly raise $800 million for K-12 by imposing a 2 percent margin tax on business profits in the state, although in a nod to smaller businesses, those that earn $1 million in profits annually or less would be exempt. If approved, the additional cash would go to the state's general education budget. (The Arizona initiative would also provide an additional $800 million to education, although it would be accomplished differently, through an extension of a previous 1-cent sales tax increase.)

Not surprisingly, the initiative was challenged in its initial form by a pro-business group, the Committee to Protect Nevada Jobs, because it dealt with more than one subject. However, an attorney for the committee, Josh Hicks, said that if the NSEA re-filed the initiative, the group would challenge the initiative again in court, and said the tax increase was merely "disguised" as a boost to school funding.

It's worth noting here that Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, spoke out against cuts to K-12 education earlier this year and agreed to keep taxes that were set to expire last year on the books. State Republicans appeared to back Sandoval's position. For those education policy wonks out there, Sandoval is set to take over as the chairman of the Education Commission of the States in 2013, and at the group's Atlanta meeting this year said because of high unemployment and other tough economic circumstances in his state, he felt it necessary to consider new policies to change the direction of K-12 and higher education. How will the initiative, if it passes, affect his plans?

Finally, for those interested in public sentiment on teacher performance pay, there's some polling that matters: In South Dakota, 38 percent of voters (a plurality) surveyed by a Sioux Falls firm said they would vote against a state law that's on the Nov. 6 ballot that would simultaneously award high-performing teachers with bonus pay and strip teachers of state-supported tenure. I wrote about the law when it was signed by Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard back in March. Meanwhile, 30 percent said they would vote to support the law, while a big group, 32 percent, said they were undecided. (The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.) The South Dakota Education Association gathered enough signatures to challenge the law on the ballot and is leading the fight against it.

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