Published Online:

Legislative Redistricting Reshuffles Decks for Education

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

During her 18 years in the Illinois House, Rep. Helen F. Satterthwaite has earned a reputation as a friend of education. But the Urbana Democrat, who has served on education committees throughout her tenure, may be in the race of her career.

As a result of a redrawn legislative map, Ms. Satterthwaite is pitted next week against another incumbent, Rep. Timothy V. Johnson, a Republican.

For the past decade, Ms. Satterthwaite has represented the cities of Urbana and Champaign, which are home to the University of Illinois. In the new district that was carved out by a Republican-majority commission, though, she has been left with only about 30 percent urban area in a region otherwise considered Republican turf.

The scenario is similar in districts across the country that have been redrawn on the basis of population shifts and partisan tinkering. Incumbents are squaring off, or have decided to step aside rather than seek the votes of an unfamiliar constituency. In some cases, they have already been defeated in primaries.

Next week, redistricting of the legislatures based on the 1990 Census will manifest itself in most states for the first time.

The outcome, according to experts, could prove pivotal to public education. The consequences are expected to be significant especially in states where the political balance is likely to shift and where school-funding formulas are at the top of the legislative agenda.

"The possibility of change in the educational arena is substantial,'' said Benjamin L. Ginsberg, the general counsel to the Republican National Committee.

Many political analysts believe that redistricting will radically change the face of state legislatures, if not in the 1992 election, then by the end of the decade.

Most importantly, the changes will bring an increase in the number of legislative seats representing suburban areas, at the expense of cities. In addition, the ranks of lawmakers who are members of minority groups are expected to swell.

How the changes will play out politically, however, remains to be seen. Some analysts think the Democrats' hold on the legislatures--they now control both chambers in 29 states, compared with only six for the Republicans--could be in jeopardy over the long run.

State legislatures are going to be "much more conservative and Republican because of this round of state redistricting,'' said Kim Brace, the president of Election Data Services, a political-consulting firm specializing in reapportionment, redistricting, and the Census.

Others are more cautious. "It's very difficult to generalize and say that one party is tremendously helped by redistricting,'' said Richard G. Niemi, a professor of political science at the University of Rochester.

A Shifting Population

The current transfer of legislative seats represents a second stage in the shifts brought about by the U.S. Supreme Court's "one person, one vote'' rulings of the 1960's.

In the early years after the Court's rulings, the mandate that lawmakers be divided equally among the populace enabled urban areas to gain representation, at the expense of rural areas' traditional grip on the legislatures.

With growth concentrated in the suburbs during the past two decades, however, the new political configurations are supposed to mirror the population by moving seats from the cities to the suburbs, where nearly half of all Americans now reside.

"The wealthy areas are suburban areas and where real growth in legislatures and voting power is taking place,'' said John Myers, the education-program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The effects of the shifts could be serious for low-wealth school districts seeking to reduce disparities in funding, Mr. Myers observed. "That will make it harder to pass school-finance-equity issues,'' he said.

The population shift alone does not account for what is being viewed as a tilt toward the G.O.P. Political analysts note that disputed maps often wound up in the courts, where federal judges appointed by the Reagan and Bush administrations approved redistricting plans favorable to Republican candidates.

Less Money in Texas?

In Texas, for example, a Senate map drawn by a federal judge superseded one submitted by the Democrat-majority legislature. Observers say the judicial map will enable the G.O.P. to pick up three to four seats.

Although that would not be enough to give Republicans control of the Senate, it could enable them to block action in the chamber, which requires a two-thirds vote on a number of issues.

"In Texas, that normally means less money for public education,'' said Craig Foster, the executive director of the Equity Center, a coalition of poor school districts.

"If they gain two seats, it may have an impact in how we do our rules,'' said Richard Hamner, the legislative director for Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, a Democrat who sits on the education committee. "From that standpoint, it would give a more conservative bias to the Senate.''

But Mr. Hamner said he thinks the state's fiscal woes are more of a limiting factor to the funding of education than is redistricting. The state anticipates a $3 billion shortfall during the next biennium.

Any political gains by suburban lawmakers also would come at a time when Texas leaders are trying once again to draft an equitable funding formula for education that will pass muster with the state supreme court.

"If we lose the friends that we have, the Equity Center's concern is that the Republicans tend to come from areas which would benefit more going back to the old way of doing it,'' Mr. Foster said.

More Minority Influence

Another consequence of redistricting is that the legislatures will have more minority representatives. The 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act required an increase in the number of districts likely to elect a minority representative.

Less specific, however, is the impact the new minority legislators will have on policy. "Clearly, they will have more influence,'' Mr. Niemi said. "But, by themselves, they will not be able to control the legislative agenda or outcome.''

Moreover, the creation of the minority districts could further undermine the Democrats' urban base. By requiring that minority voters be concentrated in districts in numbers sufficient to insure the election of a minority candidate, the 1982 mandate also made it more likely that other districts would have a higher percentage of white voters, and thus be more likely to elect Republicans.

"You have your Chicago piece of pie already smaller, and they just keep dividing it,'' said Ben Schwarm, the director of governmental relations for the Illinois Education Association-NEA.

"In the past, the Democrats have sliced and diced racial-minority communities so that traditionally black voters would provide enough ballots to elect them,'' Mr. Ginsberg noted. "With the Voting Rights Act prohibiting the fracturing of communities, the Democrats lost their key gerrymandering tools.''

A Toll Among Veterans

Redistricting has already taken a toll this year among veteran lawmakers, some of whom lost in primaries or chose not to mount a race in a newly drawn district.

Even before next week's voting, there has been a 23 percent turnover of state lawmakers nationwide, according to Timothy L. Story, the editor of Reapportionment Law Update and a policy analyst for the N.C.S.L.

But that figure may understate the extent of the turmoil, for it factors in New Jersey, Virginia, Louisiana, Maryland, and Alabama, which have no state elections this year.

Some states have experienced a significantly higher turnover: 34 percent for Florida, 33 percent for California, and 32 percent for Illinois, for example.

Mr. Ginsberg predicts that up to one-third of state lawmakers will be new, due not only to redistricting, but also to anti-incumbent sentiment among voters. In Georgia, for instance, 22 incumbents were defeated in the primaries.

A one-third turnover rate is in line with elections immediately following redistricting, according to the N.C.S.L.

"I think you will see a new class of legislators who are more willing to look at why things are as opposed to going along with the way they've always been,'' Mr. Ginsberg said.

Translated into education policy, Mr. Ginsberg suggested, the new group of lawmakers will be more inclined to consider merit pay for teachers, tougher proficiency standards for educators, and school choice.

This new group of legislators also will be more responsive to their constituents, which spells bad news for special-interest groups, he said.

"They will be under tremendous pressure to produce. Doing that, the old order suffers, and there is no more entrenched order out there than the National Education Association,'' Mr. Ginsberg argued.

Still, Mr. Ginsberg's perspective is a decidedly partisan one. Jeffrey M. Wice, the counsel to Democratic state legislative leaders nationwide, predicted that incumbents in many states will fare better than expected.

Mr. Wice also pointed to the widely predicted strength of the Democratic Presidential ticket as a major factor running in favor of his party in this year's legislative elections.

If that happens, Mr. Wice predicted, "urban school districts should fare better than they have in a while.''

Losing Education Expertise

Regardless of which party loses or gains, a high turnover would affect education policy, observers suggest.

Mr. Myers of the N.C.S.L. warned of a loss of leadership and expertise.

"That impacts education as it does all issues,'' he said. "It takes more time for new members to step foward.''

That potential loss of experience is one of Ms. Satterthwaite's concerns. In addition to her tenure on education committees, the Illinois representative has been serving on a special school-finance task force.

Meanwhile, Illinois voters are considering a constitutional amendment that would shift more of the responsibility for funding schools to the state. If it is approved, the next legislative session could have to undertake a major reworking of the school-finance system.

"I'm sure I'm much better informed of the intricacies of the funding mechanism,'' she said.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented