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New York City
November 2003

The Voice of the People

by Randi Weingarten

If you believe in democracy, it seems to me that you have to take seriously the idea of the voice of the people. Mayor Bloomberg says he believes the same thing, but his recent actions suggest that, in fact, this is true only in certain selected cases, such as the idea of eliminating party primaries. When it comes to other issues—studying potential limits on class sizes in public schools, for example—the voice of the people seems to be the last thing he wants to hear.

Eliminating party primaries is an issue that has become dear to the Mayor’s heart. He has proposed that in municipal elections there would be only one primary in which any and all candidates would run, whatever their party affiliation. The top two finishers would then go on to decide the election in a runoff.

Many people think this is not a good idea, including such traditional good government groups such as Common Cause, the New York City Bar Association and Citizens’ Union.

These and other critics of this notion say that such a measure would reduce voter involvement and make voters’ choice more difficult by obscuring where candidates stand on issues. The primary beneficiaries of this scheme would be candidates—like the Mayor himself, although if passed the measure would not affect an election until 2009—who have the money and resources to run a major campaign on their own. What ordinary person could take on a challenge like this without the backing of a party or organization?

But “let the people decide” has become the watchword of the Mayor and his supporters, at least on this issue.

Contrast with this the Mayor’s stance on reducing class size. More than 115,000 voters—well over twice the required number—signed petitions over the summer to put this issue on November’s ballot.

The measure itself would not impose any limits on class size. It would simply create a Charter Review Commission to study the issue and make recommendations that would then be put to voters hopefully in November of 2004. Listed as Question 6, it was slated to be on this November’s ballot until Mayor Bloomberg ordered it removed. He said he didn’t want any other ballot questions distracting voters’ attention from his proposal, Question 3, and two additional proposals he is pushing.

New Yorkers for Smaller Classes—a broad-based coalition of parents, educators, clergy, civic organizations, community groups, labor unions and others that spearheaded the drive to put Question 6 on the ballot—went to court. State Supreme Court Justice Louise Gans ruled earlier this month that the Mayor’s attempt to “bump” the class size proposal was unconstitutional and violated the right to free speech.

Now any parent instinctively knows that children are likely to get more attention and a better education in smaller classes. Any teacher who has spent a day in a classroom will tell you the same thing. Dozens of states already have class size reduction legislation in place. And there are reams of research showing the merits of small class size. This isn’t rocket science or brain surgery. Most education experts, parents, teachers and the public at large agree that smaller, more manageable classes are more desirable and better for kids.

Ideally, the Mayor would have joined us in such a study commission. If he was unwilling to do that, he could at least have decided that the courts had spoken and let the matter drop. But instead he pushed for an appeal, and the Appellate Division sided with him, knocking Question 6 off the ballot.

Proponents of Question 6 have taken the matter to the New York State Court of Appeals, and as this column went to press, the Court of Appeals had not yet ruled.

Question 3—eliminating party primaries—will be on the ballot. If Question 6—the class size study commission—does get on the ballot, it will mark a real opportunity for the voice of the people to be heard about something that plays a pivotal role in teachers’ ability to give kids a quality education.

Just ask yourself: Which question better reflects the voice of the people? Is it the one supported by more than 115,000 voters who signed petitions for it, along with thousands and thousands of parents? Or is it the one whose principal advocate is a single individual accustomed to getting his way? You decide.#

Randi Weingarten is President of the United Federation of Teachers.

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