With Educators, Pledge Talk Elicits Both Smiles and Ire
Educators were alternately chuckling and shaking their heads in dismay last week, as the Pledge of Allegiance continued to generate the hottest debate of the 1988 Presidential campaign.
"I think it's pretty infantile," said Urban L. Langer, headmaster of the Convent of the Visitation School in Mendota Heights, Minn., regarding the debate between Vice President George Bush and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts over who is the more patriotic American or the more avid follower of the Constitution.
"There are so many other things that they should be discussing," he said.
"That's Presidential politics and I think it stinks," said Louis J. Esparo, superintendent of the Torrington, Conn., school sys6tem, where students recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily. "Playing these kinds of games is really undignified, and below the level of both of those gentlemen."
That the nation's two potential leaders--and most of the media--appear so willing to engage in battle over an 11-year-old veto decision by Mr. Dukakis suggests, some educators ventured, their eagerness to avoid some of the tougher and more complex issues facing the nation.
"I think it's just a smokescreen for trying to divert attention from what do you do to properly educate kids? What do you do to get this country moving?" said Bill Honig, superintendent of public instruction in California.
"The idea that either Michael Dukakis or George Bush is unpatriotic is nonsense," Mr. Honig said. "They're both patriotic. The whole idea is demagogic from its conception. It's trying to play on people's emotions."
Ironically, the dizzying controversy surrounding the Pledge of Allegiance within campaign circles is almost unheard of in the schools themselves, where students have been reciting the pledge with little fanfare and less publicity for decades.
In North Platte, Neb., elementary-school students recite the pledge each morning, and older students alternate between reciting it and standing at attention while the National Anthem or the Call to Colors is played.
Although there is no written policy requiring such patriotic acts, said Superintendent Douglas O. Christensen, "it's just been tradition.''
The board of education in Oklahoma City, Okla., approved a policy in 1979 that encourages schools to engage in "patriotic exercises," such as the pledge, at the beginning of the first regularly scheduled class each day. As in most places, students and teachers can opt not to participate.
Educators in that city and elsewhere cite the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, which held that local authorities could not compel students to recite the pledge.
In the Lubbock, Tex., school district, where there is no written policy about the pledge, Superintendent E.C. Leslie said, "I encourage our people to wave the flag every opportunity that they have, and we believe that this is very, very important."
Seconded Dan McPherson, principal of the Preston Smith Elementary School in Lubbock, where students pledge allegiance to both their national and state flags each morning: "I don't like the idea of not being able to pledge allegiance to the flag, and I think the vast majority of people very much prefer it."
Other schools and school districts have remained silent on the issue, leaving the decision up to individual teachers.
Among such schools is Mr. Bush's own alma mater, the Phillips Academy, in Andover, Mass.
"As it is right now, the kids do not say the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of classes like they usually do in public schools," said Paula Trespas of the independent school's public-information department, "and I believe that is the same way it was back in George Bush's day."
But a number of states in addition to Massachusetts have statutes on the books regarding the 96-year-old oath.
Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy legal counsel for the National School Boards Association, recently finished a computer search of legislation in 30 states. In addition to the Massachusetts statute, she discovered at least 11 provisions--with no two alike--on the Pledge of Allegiance. Among the variants:
California requires boards of education to have a program of "daily patriotic exercises," which could include the pledge;
Delaware requires students and teachers to salute the flag and make the pledge;
Idaho requires instruction in the pledge;
Illinois requires pupils to recite the pledge daily;
Kentucky requires recitation of the pledge, but participation is voluntary. Louisiana requires the pledge, as does New Mexico;
Maryland, Rhode Island, and West Virginia all require recitation of the pledge, with an exemption for those who do not wish to participate;
New York State requires its commissioner of education to adopt a program to require the pledge.
In addition, Washington State passed a law as recently as 1981 that requires the pledge to be recited at the start of every school day.
"I think, in general, it's standard practice," said Dennis Ray, superintendent of the Walla Walla (Wash.) Public Schools. "To my knowledge, no one's ever been challenged for not doing it."
Mississippi requires teachers "to have all pupils repeat the oath of allegiance" at least once a month.
"This year a bill was introduced to require it daily," said Andrew P. Mullins, special assistant to the state superintendent of education, "but that bill did not pass the legislature."
"A majority of those on the committee felt that was a little much," he said.
But while such statutes can require school districts to have a policy on the Pledge of Allegiance, and can prompt students and teachers to participate, they probably cannot compel anyone to do so, legal experts said last week.
In fact, one of the central controversies regarding the Massachusetts amendment that Mr. Dukakis vetoed was whether it allowed teachers, on the basis of religious or moral objections, to decline to participate. (See Education Week, Sept. 7, 1988.)
An earlier version of the law, to which the amendment was attached, fined teachers a maximum of $5 if they refused to salute the flag and recite the pledge for two consecutive weeks, or failed to cause their students to do so.
In the advisory ruling issued by the state supreme court, on which the Governor based his veto, the justices were divided about whether the new amendment negated the $5 fine.
The dissenting justices concluded that the penalty no longer applied under the proposed law. Without an explicit penalty for failure to engage in the pledge, they noted, it could be implied that the amendment made the activity voluntary, thereby protecting teachers' rights under the First Amendment.
"There is no constitutional obstacle to a provision for voluntary participation in a pledge of allegiance," they wrote.
The majority of justices were less certain about whether the fine remained in effect. But they concluded that the amendment would be unconstitutional, nonetheless, because teachers who failed to lead their students in a recitation of the pledge each day could find their careers threatened.
"[T]he very existence of the statutory mandate might inhibit a teach8er from exercising whatever constitutional right he may have," the majority wrote.
To date, the Supreme Court has not ruled specifically on whether teachers, as opposed to students, can be compelled to lead classes in recitation of the pledge, although many legal scholars believe the Barnette ruling establishes a clear precedent. The Court also has not ruled on whether pledge statutes that do not include an exemption clause have a "chilling effect" and are therefore unconstitutional.
But Ms. Gregory noted that in the absence of attempts to bring criminal charges against teachers or students who fail to recite the pledge, the existence of an exemption clause in the state laws could be implied. And that, she said, would probably be "sufficient" to make such laws constitutional.
That view was seconded by Sandra L. Moody, a lawyer for the Massachusetts Department of Education. "I think you have to read it that way,'' she stated. "I think it's the only logical reading."
Although the Massachusetts legislature overrode Governor Dukakis's veto, she noted, "it's significant" that no one has ever been prosecuted under the law.
In fact, the Massachusetts Department of Education has advised local superintendents and school committees since 1977 that they must make the opportunity available to recite the pledge each day, but that they cannot penalize students or teachers for not participating.
Added Ivan Gluckman, director of legal and legislative services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals: "There are many districts that have Pledge of Allegiance ceremonies, and in my view there's nothing legally wrong with doing that. Nobody has ever said that there is."
"The only thing the Supreme Court dealt with is that you cannot compel anyone to take part in it," he said. "A school district can say it will have a policy of reciting the pledge every morning, but what it couldn't do ... is say every teacher must do this, and they are subject to some kind of penalty if they don't do it."
As a citizen, Ms. Gregory said, what she finds most "disturbing" about the current debate are the "misleading statements" now being made by both candidates about the 1977 incident.
"That's really unfortunate," she added, "because meanwhile, the people who are not constitutional scholars--the people who are out there trying to do what's right in schools--don't know what to think."
Agreed Robert H. Chanin, general counsel for the National Education Association, "I think the incident has been totally distorted and misused for political purposes."
Also ignored in the fast-flowing rhetoric has been the question of whether students learn anything from reciting the pledge.
U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett argues that "it's cerel10tain rituals, like the pledge and singing 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' that bring schools together."
"It teaches children that there is something larger and more important," he said last week.
Jeanne R. Allen, education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, agreed. "It is a tradition," she said. "The United States is built on tradition, and it's something that gives students a sense of pride, a sense of leadership, and a sense of what this country is about and what they're doing in school."
"We have a problem in the schools, and a breakdown in discipline," she added, "and the Pledge of Allegiance is one way that people can learn to understand their country."
But Stanley W. Moore, a professor of political science at Pepperdine University, said that the words of the pledge do not mean much to young children.
Mr. Moore based his conclusions on a longitudinal study he has conducted of 350 students since they began kindergarten in 1974.
Even in kindergarten, he said, "every child but one could identify our flag from a set of four, including those of Mexico, Canada, and Great Britain."
But in 4th grade, "after five years of flag salutes, only 69 percent could respond correctly when asked, 'What is your country?' with either America or the United States."
"It looks like just sheer repetition of the salute, the pledge, does not communicate a great deal to a lot of kids," he said. "I just think it's a tempest in a teapot."
"Something that's a ritual may have some kind of deep-seated effect on people of a noncognitive basis," Mr. Moore added, "but to really let children know about their country and what it purports to be, ... you need something more serious than that."
The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement found similar results in a 1971 study of civic education in 10 countries.
Judith Torney Purta, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland who wrote a book about the findings, said that of the eight countries in which 14-year-olds were tested--Finland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United States, and West Germany--"there was in fact a negative relationship between time spent in the classroom on patriotic rituals and achievement."
"Students who reported spending more time saluting the flag, singing patriotic songs, that sort of thing, in fact scored lower on a test of their knowledge of government and were somewhat less supportive of democratic values," Ms. Purta said.
In contrast, a factor that was positively related both to students' knowledge of government and to their support of democratic values, according to the researcher, was whether they were free to express their opinions in the classroom and to offer their own interpretation of events.
Mr. Moore said that students who participated in mock elections also remembered those activities for a "very, very long time," and increased their understanding of democracy.
Although no educator implied that reciting the pledge was harmful to students--and several suggested that there is a relationship between understanding patriotic symbols and patriotism--many contended that much more is needed to produce "good citizens."
"I guess I'm a traditionalist," said Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "I don't feel it hurts anyone to say the pledge."
"But I don't think it's an educational issue," he added. "I don't think students are going to learn any better by reciting the pledge or not reciting the pledge. It's a public-opinion issue."
The real question, many said last week, is when Mr. Bush and Mr. Dukakis will get serious and begin talking about more substantive matters.
"It's kind of shocking, the amount of time and energy spent on this issue, when you see it in the context of the huge issues facing public education right now," said Kate Krell, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. "It would be nice to move the debate along a little bit."
"Politicians just about can't be honest, I've decided," said Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. "Neither side is talking about what they're going to do about the deficit. ... What cuts will be made to account for it and, given limited resources, what can be done to leverage limited federal dollars? I don't hear any very fresh thinking from either side on that matter."
And Mr. Christensen of North Platte, Neb., said he, at least, "resents" the current debate.
"Most of it is politically motivated hype," he said. "and when we get caught in the middle of that, I really resent it."
"I think there is an appropriate place in the public schools for the Pledge of Allegiance and the teaching of patriotism," he added. "The patriotic rituals of our country, I don't think, should be reduced to a political football game."