Several months ago, with polls showing SQ 744 ahead by a two-to-0ne margin and supporters announcing that the National Education Association had committed over $3 million to the Yes campaign, many thought that the measure’s passage was a slam-dunk. Subsequent polling showed a sharp fall-off in support for 744, and by the final week of the campaign, most observers were expecting its defeat. It’s unlikely, however, that anyone anticipated the magnitude of the final margin: 81.4 percent opposed versus just 18.6 percent in favor. Ultimately, opposition to SQ 744 outpolled everything else on yesterday’s ballot, including support for such popular ballot ideas as voter ID and English as the state’s official language.
What happened? My sense is that the defeat of SQ 744 was the result of its opponents ability to convincingly build three arguments. The first was the argument, which OK Policy can claim some credit for having developed, that increased K-12 funding of the magnitude required by SQ 744 would necessarily come at the expense of health care, corrections, higher ed, and other areas of state government. On the one hand, I’m not sure this argument directly swayed a large portion of the electorate. Few voters likely voted no on SQ 744 out of concern for kids in foster care. Many voters believed that common education should be a higher priority, and Yes on 744 proponents were at least somewhat effective at countering the idea that the measure couldn’t be paid for by pointing to tax breaks and politician’s perks as a funding source. However, the argument helped persuade leading politicians and opinion leaders, including those acknowledged as committed advocates for public education and children, to take a strong stand against SQ 744, giving the No side respectability while putting SQ 744 proponents on the defensive. At the same time, from the standpoint of building a coalition and mounting a campaign, the fear of being left with a shrinking share of the budget pie certainly mobilized organizations whose interests were put at risk by 744’s passage to raise money, get involved and spread the word among their members.
The second argument against SQ 744 that seemed to resonate was skepticism about how the additional money earmarked for education would be spent. Many voters seemed unconvinced that all, or even any, of the money would ever end up being spent in the classroom and to boost teacher salaries. The No side was able to tap into the general sense of distrust about government spending in general, and spending on education in particular. That the campaign was run in an election year when faith in government is at an especially low level certainly didn’t help the Yes side.
Finally, many voters undoubtedly voted against SQ 744 because opponents succeeded in tarring the proposal as a tax increase. Supporters could argue that there was nothing in the ballot language that required raising taxes, but many voters assumed that they’d have to pay for what they were buying – and the price tag circulated by the No side of a $1,200 tax hike for a family of four sounded pretty steep. The Yes side’s strategy of not specifying a funding source for SQ 744 as part of the ballot measure was understandable but may ultimately have hurt them more than it helped.
SQ 744 supporters responded to the results by trying to put them in the best possible light:
“It’s a win, win for education,” said Heather Sparks, teacher of the year in 2009… “We have let the public know, really put the giant spotlight on the fact that we are in the bottom five every year. We can do better if we have more resources. It needs to be a priority in our state.”
We strongly share the hope that the battle over SQ 744 sends a message that the state must focus seriously on improving our state’s education system. We also hope that if the voters are given the chance to weigh in on the next proposal, the basic questions that SQ 744’s supporters failed to address – how much will it cost, how will it be paid for, what will it buy, and what do we expect to achieve – will be honestly debated and persuasively answered.