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For Teacher Delegates, Education And Politics Are The Same

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ATLANTA--"The day I stepped into the classroom, I stepped into a very active role,'' said the president of the Michigan Education Association, Larry Chunovich, who attended the Democratic National Convention here as a delegate pledged to Michael Dukakis.

"Every decision that affects us as educators is a political decision or at least politically motivated,'' he said.

Like many of the 450 teachers' union members who went to Atlanta as delegates, Mr. Chunovich said his involvement in politics is inseparable from his work as an educator. He began by working for collective-bargaining rights for public employees like himself, and worked his way into leadership positions in both the union, a National Education Association affiliate, and the Michigan Democratic party.

'Issues That Affect Children'

Elaine Napper's introduction to politics also came through her union, the Pittsburgh affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. The elementary-school teacher accidentally walked in on a union forum for city council candidates, and decided to stay.

"I was amazed at how educated some were and how uneducated others were, and how many different motives there seemed to be for the people running and I got really interested,'' Ms. Napper said. "I was appalled at what you could vote for and not know.''

Ms. Napper, a Dukakis delegate, is now political action co-chairman for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Her experience in the classroom, she said, strongly influences the issues she chooses to emphasize in her political work.

"I'm basically interested in those issues that affect children, and I'm most interested in the education platform,'' she said. "As far as issues that affect families, most delegates can see it only from their own perspective, but even though I make a pretty good wage, I can see what's happening to poorer families.''

Education Connections

Even delegates who said union activity or classroom experience was not the main reason for their political involvement drew a connection.

Sallie Cook, a high-school government teacher from Holton, Ala., said education issues are not the most important to her, and she became a Jesse Jackson delegate because she believes in his overall agenda. But she also said, "While I'm not a union delegate or an education delegate, the NEA is where I got my training.''

Margaret Abrashoff, an NEA member from State College, Pa., said that she inherited an interest in politics from her family, but that being a special-education teacher had influenced her political goals.

"Funding for special education was already getting the short end of the stick even before the Reagan Administration,'' she said.

'How Things Really Happened'

Jacqueline Hillyer, a high-school social-studies teacher from Ashtabula, Ohio, said her decision to teach and her political activity both stem from a longstanding interest in government and politics that began when she attended Kent State University during the turbulent 1960's.

Although she was interested in politics--particularly issues relating to peace, civil rights, and women's rights--before becoming an educator, her teaching experience has shaped her political experience.

"Education is a political process. It is dependent on politics for its funding, its philosophy, and its implementation,'' Ms. Hillyer said. "If you believe in democracy, part of that is a free, public education for everybody. It's important for public-school teachers to get as much funding as they can from the government.''

"Education has not been equal, just as health care has not been equal,'' she continued. "It has always been a vehicle the well-off used to perpetuate their well-offness.''

Ms. Hillyer said she was spurred to work for the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation outlawing sex bias in federally funded education programs, when she "began to see discrimination in the schools,'' particularly in athletics.

Her political activity, she said, makes her a better teacher.

"It's good for us. It brings politics live into the classroom,'' Ms. Hillyer said. "It makes it more real to students if you tell them how things really happened instead of what's in a textbook.''

An Immediate Goal

For Mario Pompa, an alternate delegate here, both politics and teaching are ways to further his goal: aiding the disadvantaged, particularly his fellow Mexican-Americans. He teaches mathematics in an inner-city Los Angeles high school where gang shootings occur on school grounds and only about 300 students out of each class of 1,100 graduate. His immediate political goal, he said, is to press local community colleges to do more to serve minority students.

"One thing I'm hoping to do politically is to issue an emergency call, particularly to the Mexican-American community, to consider teaching,'' Mr. Pompa said. "Money for materials isn't the problem, it's the quality and retention of teachers.''

Although union issues are not his main interest, Mr. Pompa, an AFT member, said he could not have gone to Atlanta without the $1,000 both teachers' unions gave to each of their members who were delegates.

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