The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"To succeed in politics, it is often necessary to rise above your principles."...  ...Anonymous.

Commentary of the Day - Nov. 12, 2000:  The Education Election.

At this writing the 2000 U.S. presidential election has yet to be decided.  Al Gore leads in both the popular vote and in the number of electoral college votes pledged to him; but, neither Gore nor Bush yet has the majority of electoral college votes needed for victory.  While the lack of a quick decision may be discomforting to many, it provides a wealth of lessons for students of government.  In fact, the process has been an education in and of itself.  In this commentary we address some of the lessons from the presidential election, as well as some of the more traditional education issues that were decided by voters across the country.

The Presidential Election (Popular Vote) Was a Tie:  As most of our regular readers know the Irascible Professor is a physicist as well as an educator.  From the viewpoint of a physicist, the result of the election on November 7th was a tie within the accuracy and constraints of the American electoral system.  Vice President Gore leads in the popular vote by slightly more than 220,000 votes out of the more than 100,000,000 that were cast.  Thus, the two major candidates are separated by little more than 0.2%.

Elections basically measure the sentiment of the electorate for the candidates.  Like any other measurement there are uncertainties and errors involved in the process.  In the United States a wide variety of technologies used in voting and vote counting.  The level of sophistication ranges from simple paper ballots to fairly sophisticated computer systems.  However, even if the election was fair in the sense that no outright fraud occurred (and so far there have been almost no complaints of fraud), errors still creep in.  Inevitably, some voters will be confused and will mark their ballots incorrectly or will punch the wrong hole (as most certainly happened in Florida).  Punch card ballots even if voted correctly occasionally are not read correctly by the tabulating machines and computers because the intended hole has not been punched cleanly or completely.  Random errors also occur in the counting of paper ballots, even those tallied by optical scanners.

The error rate or uncertainty probably approached 1 to 2% back in the days when most voting was done with paper ballots.  Today, with the vast majority of ballots counted by machine the error rate is probably more like 0.5%.  Nevertheless, this means that to have confidence that one candidate or the other actually won a majority of the popular vote, the difference between the two should amount to at least 1.5%.  It should be noted that Bush and Gore were not the only candidates on the November 7, 2000 ballot.  About 3% of the ballots cast were for third party candidates.  Ralph Nader received the bulk of these votes (2.7 million).  Unfortunately, there is no provision in the Constitution for a runoff election between the two candidates with the highest vote totals.  Given the size of the Nader vote, a runoff might have settled the issue definitively.

The Electoral College:  The Electoral College is an institution without a campus, professors, or students, yet it reinforces some important lessons.  One of which is that our founding fathers were not all that trusting of democracy.  A state's representation in the Electoral College is equal to its representation in Congress with the exception of the District of Columbia, which has no voting representation in Congress but which has three presidential electors.  Because states with very small populations (for example Montana) have two senators and one congressman, they have a disproportionate effect on the Electoral College vote.  That Montana voter has twice as much say about who becomes President in a close race as a California voter, because each Montana elector represents only half as many voters as each California elector.  The strength of the Electoral College system is that it makes it reduces the chance that a candidate can win the presidency by rolling up a huge margin in the popular vote in a small region of the country.  The weakness of the system, however, is that we end up electing a president in 51 separate elections (the 50 states plus the District of Columbia).  Since all but two states choose electors on a winner-take-all basis, it is quite possible for the candidate who loses the popular vote to gain the presidency when the race is close -- as it was this year.  Indeed, at this writing it looks like Bush will have an Electoral College majority even though Gore appears to have won the popular vote.

The Result:  Because of the closeness of both the popular vote and the Electoral College vote, neither Bush nor Gore can claim a mandate.  Indeed, the ambivalence of the electorate reflects the lack of defining issues in this year's presidential election.  This is not surprising considering that the nation is in a state of peace and relative prosperity.  Technical issues related to social security and tax cuts, while important, are hardly the stuff to stir passions among the populace.

Because of all the attention to the as yet undecided presidential race, not much has been said about the changing composition of the House and Senate.  However, the already narrow margins between the Republicans and Democrats have narrowed even more.  The Republicans will control the House of Representatives, but their margin will be exceptionally narrow -- fewer than 10 members.  The composition of the Senate has not been fully determined yet.  There is a good chance that there will be an even split between Democrats and Republicans, and at worse a 51-49 margin in favor of the Republicans.  The near deadlock in Congress combined with a President who is without a popular mandate most likely means that very little controversial legislation will be enacted in the next two years.

This may make the outlook for federal support for education quite good.  Both presidential candidates ran on platforms that had relatively positive education planks, and education is an issue that can garner a good bit of bipartisan support in an evenly divided Congress.  A President who is anxious to avoid a stalemate during his first two years in office may well want to focus on issues such as education, which have wide popular support.

The Other Education Election:  A number of other education issues on ballots across the country were decided on November 7th.  School voucher initiatives in both California and Michigan were defeated by overwhelming majorities.  In both states these measures lost by two-to-one margins.  This marked the ninth and tenth time that statewide voucher initiatives have gone down to defeat since 1972.  Both these defeats should send a strong message to voucher supporters that the electorate prefers to have its tax dollars support public schools rather than private ones.

In California voters approved a measure (Proposition 39) to reduce the super majority needed to pass school bond issues from two-thirds to 55%.  This marked the first time since the passage of Proposition 13 that California voters have been willing to alter the property tax structure in the state in order to provide increased support for public school renovation and construction.  However, the deterioration of public school facilities in the "Golden State" over the past three decades had reached such a sorry state of embarrassment that both present the present governor, Gray Davis, and former governor Pete Wilson both supported Prop. 39.  Voters in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Washington also approved measures to enhance public school funding.

In a number of hotly contested Senate elections candidates who strongly supported public education were successful.  These included Republicans Olympia Snow in Maine and James Jeffords in Vermont; and Democrats Dayton in Minnesota, Stabenow in Michigan, Carnahan in Missouri, Clinton in New York, and Nelson in Florida.

In Arizona voters passed an anti-bilingual education measure by a large majority.  This measure was very similar to one passed earlier in California that provides for one year of English immersion for non-English speaking students.  The measure also allows parents to request waivers in special circumstances.  In Oregon an anti-gay education measure was defeated by a 53% to 47% margin with 99% of the ballots counted, and with 99% of the votes counted a Washington measure to allow charter schools appears to have been defeated by a 52% to 48% margin.

The IP would say that, on the whole, public education did quite well in this election!

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© 2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.