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Interpreting the School Budget Vote

Yesterday, New Jersey voters did something they haven’t done in more than 30 years: defeated a majority of school district tax levies. [Note: I’m calling them “levies” here because that is more accurate. Voters don’t really have a say on the spending portion of the operational budgets of their local schools. They only get to vote on the amount in property taxes that the district proposes levying for the year.]

They also turned out in record numbers. The final statewide vote count hasn’t been compiled, but it is somewhere north of 20% of all registered voters. [Update: Turnout was more than 1.2 million voters. That’s 24% as a percentage of all registered voters (26% if you exclude districts that don’t put the levy up for a vote)! It was 13.5% in 2009.] That may not sound like much, but the previous high for school elections, going back to at least 1976, was 18.6%. 1976 was also the last time a majority of school levies failed. That year, 56% went down. This year, it looks like 59% have been tossed out by voters.

A Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll released last week found that 29% of registered voters – if they did vote – would support their local school levies, while 37% would oppose them. Based on a sampling of county returns, it looks like that 8 point margin may hold up in the final statewide vote. [Update: The gap closed to 48% for to 52% against — a 4 point margin.]

There are some other interesting findings as well. Taking Middlesex County as just one example, compared to the April 2009 election, turnout in this one county was up by 65%. The number of “No” votes went up by 90%. But the number of “Yes” votes also went up, albeit by a lower 40%. In other words, turnout increased on both sides of the issue.

So what does this all mean?

Chris Christie and his supporters have claimed victory, saying that New Jersey voters sided with the governor in his battle with the state teacher’s union, the NJEA. However, the governor urged voters to defeat budgets in districts where the teachers made no concessions – and a good number of these actually passed. On the flip side, in the few districts where teachers actually agreed to wage freezes or other concessions – the districts one would expect to be rewarded if voters were out to show support for the governor – a good number (anywhere between 6 and 13 depending on what you count as a “concession”) of the school budget levies failed.

The NJEA claims that the school vote was a repudiation of the governor’s draconian cuts in school aid which forced school boards to raise property taxes in order to maintain needed programs and services. Maybe, but polls also indicate that the public expected teachers to be willing to take pay freezes and pay for their benefits.

Local school boards say the vote was the product of a rush to make drastic cuts in a short time frame with few available tools to lessen the pain for both the educational system and the taxpayers. They may be partially right, but polls consistently show that voters believe there is a whole lot of waste in school spending to begin with.

So, here’s what we know about the New Jersey public:
1. They think the size of the cuts in state aid to local schools is unfair.
2. They think the teachers’ unions should be willing to come to the table and agree to a wage freeze and benefit contributions.
3. They don’t want educational programs cut.
4. They don’t want their property taxes raised.

All of these are reasons why Garden State voters voted yesterday. They are the reasons why more people than usual turned out to vote “No.” And they are also the reasons why more people than usual turned out to vote “Yes.”

Anyone who claims with certainty that any of these reasons is the main factor behind a majority of school levies going down yesterday is just blowing smoke.

However, one clarion message did emerge from yesterday’s vote. And the governor got it right when he said today, “[New Jerseyans have] had enough. They want real, fundamental change.”

New Jersey voters get very few chances to actually make a statement at the ballot box (considering all our “safe” legislative districts). We’ve seen in the past year, though, that when given a real opportunity to vote for change, they’ll take it. April 20, 2010 was one of those times.

I don’t think yesterday’s vote can be seen as a whole-hearted endorsement of Governor Christie’s policy choices. But it seems clear that he has single-handedly raised the public’s awareness and interest in what’s going on in the state. And for that accomplishment alone, he deserves kudos.

In so doing, though, he has also raised expectations. The message from yesterday’s vote is that it’s time for everyone – governor, legislative leadership, unions, etc. – to drop the childish name-calling, come to the table, and get to work putting New Jersey back on the right track.