The Ballot Box: A Tool for Education Reform?

Education reform is headed to the ballot box in Massachusetts. This November, voters will likely decide a ballot initiative that aims to make teacher effectiveness a key component of school-staffing decisions. But the proposal has drummed up opposition from local teachers’ unions, leaving the initiative’s prospects for success uncertain.

If the effort succeeds, the state’s educator-evaluation system—which measures teachers’ impact on student learning—would become a primary component of school personnel policies. Teachers’ unions themselves collaborated with the state education department to create the evaluation system. But the unions oppose tying the evaluations to key staffing decisions. At present, seniority drives layoff and transfer policies in many districts.

Although Massachusetts is often hailed as a leader in public education, underachievement is common among poor and minority students. In a survey of the state’s schools, Stand for Children—the nonprofit leading the ballot-initiative effort—found that quality-blind staffing policies are more common in low-income districts. For example, the survey found that 58 percent of those districts have contract language establishing reverse-seniority layoffs for tenured teachers, compared to only 34 percent of wealthier districts.

Stand for Children made a prudent choice by taking this proposal to the ballot box. After all, the Democratic state legislature wouldn’t have enacted this law on its own. Yet most voters seem to agree that classroom effectiveness should motivate teacher-staffing policies. Ballot-initiative procedures—which are a Progressive Era reform—were designed for situations like this: Through the ballot box, the electorate can circumvent special interest-driven legislatures and directly enact popular laws. In reality, however, special-interest groups can be hugely influential in ballot-initiative campaigns.

The state’s largest teachers’ union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, is taking a kitchen-sink approach to defeat Stand for Children’s proposal. The union filed a lawsuit earlier this year to prevent voters from even deciding the issue. The lawsuit—which raises three fairly technical claims based on the state’s constitutional requirements for ballot initiatives—alleges that the state attorney general erred by certifying the proposal to appear on this year’s ballot.

Experts predict that the union’s legal challenge will fail. “It strikes me as a Hail Mary lawsuit,” said Leslie Graves of the website Ballotpedia. Similarly, Professor Jonathan Matsusaka, who is president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, said that the union’s claims amount to a “big stretch.”

Even Peter Enrich, a Northeastern University law professor who opposes the initiative on policy grounds, said that the lawsuit is weak. “I understand why the plaintiffs don’t want this question on the ballot,” he said. “But when you look at the claims with an eye to the state constitution, they are reaches.”

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments in the case earlier this month. A decision is expected by mid-July.

If its legal claims are losers, why did the union ever bother filing suit?  Ms. Graves of Ballotpedia has a few explanations. For starters, judges can be unpredictable and so seemingly weak claims sometimes succeed. And it may have been worth rolling the dice when the lawsuit’s costs will amount to little more than the union’s lawyers’ time. In comparison, a full-blown advertising campaign against the initiative could carry a price tag in the millions. Thus, the potential savings may be worth the effort of drafting some papers and making a few court appearances. Finally, lawsuits attract media attention and create public-relations opportunities, which may serve as a cheap way for the union to launch its broader campaign against the proposal.

Teachers’ unions have some advantages going into the campaign. “The electorate is sympathetic to teachers,” said Professor Matsusak, “and teachers have proven to be highly effective politically as a result.” Thus, teachers’ unions may jam local media with ads of educators encouraging voters to oppose the initiative. And this strategy may work: In Oregon, teachers’ unions ran an aggressive campaign to help defeat a 2008 proposal that would have required schools to pay teachers based on merit, not seniority. Similarly, the largest teachers’ union in California spent millions to crush a 2000 proposal that would have created a statewide voucher system.

But the Massachusetts initiative still has promise. Public-opinion surveys suggest that the proposal—which ties hiring, firing, and transfer decisions to teacher effectiveness, while still giving some consideration to seniority—may be more popular than the merit-pay or school-voucher proposals. Also, Stand for Children recently kicked off an ambitious advertising campaign, which could rival the unions’ own outreach efforts.

However, status-quo bias is another hurdle for the initiative. “Voters hesitate to upset the world as it is, unless they’re confident that the alternative is going to be better,” said Professor Matsusak, who estimates that nationally about 60 percent of initiatives have failed over the past century. Bias against change could be strong in Massachusetts, where the schools are widely considered to be some of the country’s best.

Voters are particularly hesitant to embrace complex initiatives, said Professor Enrich, who considers Stand for Children’s 16-page proposal “awfully complicated.”  Merit-based staffing is a simple idea. But the reality is that few voters will understand the particulars of the initiative on Election Day. And ads against the proposal will likely stir up voters’ fear of the unknown.

Regardless of the outcome, the Massachusetts proposal could offer a way forward for education reform in other states. About half of the 50 states allow for ballot initiatives. If proposals are tailored to public opinion, the ballot box could be a tool to improve this country’s schools in states where legislatures disappoint.

Mark Osmond, who holds a master’s degree in economics and public policy from Columbia University, is a law student at the University of Michigan. He can be reached at

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