Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Amendments – Part 2

Yesterday I wrote about three of the six constitutional amendments we will be voting on this year. Below are my thoughts on the remaining three.

Amendments 5 & 6: Standards for Legislature to follow in redistricting (I will vote YES)

These amendments would place standards in the Constitution that would prohibit politicians from manipulating legislative district lines to favor incumbents or a particular political party. This all-to-common practice is known as “gerrymandering.” They would also prohibit the drawing of districts that reduce the ability of minorities to equally participate in the political process. It would require that districts be compact and have community-based boundaries.

Amendment 5 addresses redistricting for the Florida legislature; amendment 6 addresses Congressional redistricting.

The amendments are sponsored by, a nonpartisan organization which is supported by more than 50 nonpartisan Florida organizations including the League of Women Voters, AARP, NAACP, Democracia Ahora, Florida League of Cities, Florida Association of Counties, and Florida School Boards Association. Take a look at FairDistrictFlorida’s really clever commercial.

According to the League of Women Voters of Florida, gerrymandering is the reason that despite the fact that the state’s voter registration is politically balanced (36 percent Republican, 41 percent Democrat, 23 percent other), our districts are not.

Sixty percent of our U.S. Congressional districts are represented by Republicans, 40 percent by Democrats. In the Florida House, 63 percent of the seats are Republican; 37 percent are Democratic.

Opponents of the amendments claim the proposed standards are conflicting and will be difficult to implement. They also contend they could potentially reduce minority representation.

I find that hard to believe. It is clear that something is wrong when there are more Democrats than Republicans in Florida, yet almost two-thirds of the Legislature is Republican.

No doubt whichever party is in power has benefitted from gerrymandering in the past. But now – finally – we have an opportunity to do something about it. I will vote YES on amendments 5 and 6.

Amendment 8: Revision of the class size requirements for public schools (I will vote YES)

This amendment would amend the Constitution to revise the current class size limits passed in 2002 by 52 percent of Florida voters. The amendment is sponsored by the Florida Legislature.

The Florida Constitution currently limits the number of students assigned to each teacher in public school classrooms as follows:
  • for pre-K through grade 3 - 18 students;
  • for grades 4 through 8 – 22 students;
  • for grades 9 through 12 – 25 students
These limits are being phased in and were scheduled to take full effect in August 2010.

Under the amendment, the current limits on the maximum number of students assigned to each teacher would become limits on the average number of students assigned per class to each teacher, by specified grade grouping, in each public school.

The amendment also adopts new limits on the maximum number of students assigned to each teacher:
  • for pre-K through grade 3 – 21 students (up from 18);
  • for grades 4 through 8 – 27 students (up from 22);
  • for grades 9 through 12 – 30 students (up from 25)

The amendment requires the Legislature to provide the funding to meet the new requirements, and would take effect retroactively to the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year.

I became familiar with this issue earlier this year by attending School Board meetings. I learned that some Collier County elementary schools would need additional classrooms to meet the class size limit, while others have excess classrooms. One possibility discussed was purchasing "portable" classrooms (i.e. trailers), but rezoning 15 schools in Naples and three schools in Immokalee is the most cost-effective way to meet the requirement. After hearing from parents of the children who would be affected, the School Board unanimously decided to delay the rezoning until voters voted on this amendment.

According to the Naples Daily News, “If the amendment passes, then the previously recommended large scale rezoning of elementary school students will not be necessary, nor will the estimated need to hire more than 200 additional teachers at an expense of more than $15 million.” If the amendment fails, the District will have to pay a multi-million dollar penalty.

Many teachers believe the amendment is the wrong way to achieve class-size flexibility. The president of the Teachers Association of Lee County wrote, in an op-ed in the Fort Myers News-Press, that amendment 8 “is an unnecessary political ploy created by Florida legislators to undo the progress made through the 2002 voter approved citizen initiative.” He said, “... the concerns being raised now could have been, and still could be addressed legislatively, without the need for another constitutional amendment.” Opponents believe passing this amendment lets the Legislature off the hook in terms of providing the funding for the current class size requirements.

I heard, at the School Board meetings, the angst and anger of parents who did not want their children to be rezoned. I heard the Superintendent and staff explain the current law’s lack of flexibility, such that if just one new student entered a school whose classes were at their limits, it would be necessary to add another classroom and shuffle all the kids mid-year.

To me, the flexibility provided by this amendment is needed, and the higher maximum class sizes permitted by the amendment are still not very high. I will vote YES on amendment 8.