Classroom Politics: Should Teachers Endorse a Candidate?

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Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty

If kids grades one to 12 could vote, Barack Obama would be our next President. In a recent non-scientific poll conducted by the academic publisher Scholastic, 57% of nearly 250,000 youngsters voted to send the Democratic nominee to the White House. But how much of students' opinions are a reflection of their teachers' political preferences? And is that kind of influence a bad thing?

Those are the questions central to a federal lawsuit filed this month by New York City's teachers union. The United Federation of Teachers has sought a temporary restraining order against a district policy that bars teachers from wearing campaign buttons in the city's public schools. The prohibition, union officials argue, is a violation of teachers' First Amendment rights to free speech and political expression. "It doesn't matter whether you support Obama or Republican Senator John McCain," UFT president Randi Weingarten said at a press conference. "As voters, we all should have the right to express our views."

In an election where education has garnered little attention from either voters or politicians alike, the tensions in New York are simply the latest controversy to erupt over classroom politics. The overarching question is where should teachers draw the line on politicking?

To be sure, some cases have been clearly inappropriate — such as the Florida middle school instructor who was suspended Oct. 2 after writing a racial slur about Obama on his blackboard. Other situations, however, are more ambiguous. Consider the class of first graders at a San Francisco charter school, which recently had a school-sponsored outing to attend the wedding of their lesbian teacher. Three weeks from now, California voters will vote on Proposition 8, an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative, and proponents of that measure decry the field trip as overtly political. "This is promoting same-sex marriage and indoctrinating young kids," says Frank Schubert, co-manager of the Yes on 8 Campaign. Liz Jaroflow, principal of Creative Arts Charter School, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the nuptuals were a "teachable moment" and pointed out that students who did not have parental permission to attend the event had the option of joining another classroom instead. "It's certainly an issue I would be willing to put my job on the line for," she said.

Meanwhile, in a school district less than 100 miles to the south, teachers in Soquel, Calif., voluntarily agreed earlier this month to stop wearing their "Educate Obama" buttons after one parent, a McCain supporter, complained. And in Virginia, a teachers union was recently forced to defend an e-mail it sent in late September asking chapter leaders to "register two new voters or talk to two people who may still be on the fence." State Republicans attacked the memo, asserting that teachers were attempting to influence students' votes — an accusation the union denies. "Teachers hold an important and respected role in our society," Virginia Education Association president Kitty Boitnott says. "We would never encourage them to misuse that role for political purposes."

And yet, when it comes to election season, teachers unions have long forced their members to walk a fine line. Since the 1960s, these unions and their 3 million members nationwide have played a prominent role in Democratic politics, and this year is no exception. The UFT's parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, which Weingarten also heads, publicly endorsed Obama for President in July. But while unions can signal to their members which candidate best serves their interests, a third-grade teacher telling her students she'll be voting for Obama is construed by many as overstepping. "This is not a relationship among adults — teachers are authority figures and role models for young students," says Stanford political science professor Terry Moe, who studies the nexus of teachers' unions and politics at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. "It's an abuse of that authority to try to sway political views."

Limits placed on teachers during election season vary widely across the nation's 15,000 school districts. In New York, the ban on political pins now being contested has existed in some form or another for more than two decades, though union leaders say it has been rarely enforced. But on Oct. 1, schools chancellor Joel Klein used his monthly newsletter to principals at New York's 1,500 schools to remind them of the policy and warn that disciplinary action could be taken against staff who choose to ignore the rule, prompting the union to take legal action to overturn it.

Not surprisingly, Klein and the city's Department of Education have not backed down. General Counsel Michael Best contends the policy doesn't violate any constitutional right and that it is the educators wearing campaign buttons who are in the wrong. "Schools are not for politics, they're for education," Best says. "Teachers can espouse any political view they want outside school hours, but they can't use school as a vehicle to do so." Both sides expect a judge to rule on the matter by week's end.

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