Massachusetts voters in 2024 could be asked to settle two major education debates, but retailers may pass on bringing tax cuts to next year's ballot, State House News Service has learned.
The state's largest teacher's union is considering ballot questions that would eliminate the graduation requirement associated with statewide standardized testing and create a "debt free college scholarship program," both proposals that legislative leaders have hesitated to embrace.
Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, told the News Service the group is compiling polling data ahead of the Aug. 2 deadline to file paperwork for 2024 ballot questions. The union commissioned a poll by Echo Cove Research in June that shows support for the two potential measures.
Of the 800 registered voters asked, 81% said they would vote "yes" on a ballot measure "ensuring that every person who lives in Massachusetts who has graduated from a state high school and wishes to pursue higher education has access to an adequately funded, debt-free education at any public college or university."
The union has long backed legislation to create a "debt free college scholarship program" to support students with economic needs. The bill was filed by state Sen. Jo Comerford and state Reps. Sean Garballey and Patricia Duffy (S 816 / H 1260). It has not emerged for a hearing before the Committee on Higher Education.
A report by the Hildreth Institute published last year found student costs at the state's public colleges and universities increased at one of the fastest rates in the nation, with tuition and fees rising by 52% since 2000, during a time when median household earnings have climbed only 13%.
Though there are other aspects of the Cherish Act, such as ensuring eligibility for state health care and retirement benefits for adjunct faculty and part-time staff, the union only polled the debt-free component.
"On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's abysmal decision to gut affirmative action, it's more important than ever that we stand up for fair and equal access to public higher education in Massachusetts," Page said. "Residents want and need access to high quality, debt-free public higher education. Our young people should not have to go into massive debt or come from wealthy backgrounds to pursue the degrees that are required for so many jobs."
On another MTA priority, 73% of the 800 voters polled June 2-11 said they would support eliminating the graduation requirement tied to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. The union has called the test a "punitive, high-stakes, rank-and-shame accountability system."
The MTA has long opposed the exams that were created in a 1993 education reform law aimed at improving accountability and school performance. The first tests were given in 1998, and high school students have been required to pass the tests to graduate since 2003.
Massachusetts is one of only eight states that still ties a standardized test to a high school graduation requirement, according to the union.
Supporters of the exams say they provide valuable data on school performance and achievement gaps that can then be targeted with funding and interventions, while objectors say the MCAS causes unnecessary stress for students, takes away class time and school resources to teach "test taking" skills, and doesn't provide useful feedback for teachers.
If the testing graduation requirement were eliminated, according to the union, schools would be required to certify students for graduation on other state standard requirements.
The poll asked just about eliminating the graduation requirement, not about scrapping the tests altogether.
Meanwhile, 80% of poll respondents said they would support a ballot measure requiring the state to establish a commission to create a new form of standardized assessment to replace the MCAS.
The union also polled support for educators having the right to strike - which is illegal in Massachusetts - with 66% of respondents saying they support the measure. Additionally, 59% said they would support ending the system that can place schools and districts in state receivership.
With less than a month until the first filing deadline all ballot question campaigns must meet, the field of 2024 initiative petitions remains murky.
The Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which has twice filed ballot questions - most recently to decrease the sales tax - does not seem poised to file a measure for November 2024, despite polling residents on tax cuts.
The group asked voters if they would support rolling back the sales tax from 6.25% to 5%, which had been the sales tax rate up until the 2009 recession. Eighty-six percent of respondents said they would vote "yes," according to RAM.
On reducing the income tax from 5% to 4%, 79% of voters that RAM polled said they would vote for the decrease.
Despite the broad support, RAM President Jon Hurst said the ballot questions may not be necessary, as he is "confident" that leaders on Beacon Hill will make good on promises to provide tax relief for residents "within the next few weeks."
Other groups that have signaled an interest in putting questions before voters have not solidified their plans. The influential Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, which led the successful 2022 campaign for the surtax on high earners, still has not made a final decision on whether to press ahead with efforts it floated months ago to further amend that new tax law or once again increase the minimum wage.
"Raise Up Massachusetts is working to increase the minimum wage because the low-wage workers who make our economy work need higher wages to keep up with record-breaking inflation, deal with the high cost of living in Massachusetts, and rise out of poverty," Raise Up spokesperson Andrew Farnitano said in a statement Wednesday. "Our coalition of community organizations, faith-based groups, and labor unions is still actively considering all options to win an increase in the minimum wage, including legislative pathways and a potential 2024 ballot initiative."
Twelve initiative petition measures have been filed as of Wednesday, according to Attorney General Andrea Campbell's office. Seven of those failed to pass constitutional muster, the attorney general's office ruled in September when Maura Healey still held that title, including a proposal to limit contributions to independent expenditure PACs. The Supreme Judicial Court in May dismissed a challenge opposing Healey's decision not to certify the question, saying the case was "moot" because supporters failed to collect enough signatures to advance the measure.
Five potential ballot questions are listed as certified on the AG's website, including a proposal that would expand credits and rebates for the purchase of electric vehicles and other clean home energy systems.
Officials also certified a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit collection and sharing of data, including location tracking, images and voice audio, by both state government and private companies.