They Also Serve: 'Experience' Sets Many Educators on Path to Politics
These are hectic days for Jim Pierson, a full-time teacher and aspiring state representative. When the 48-year-old educator from Arvada, Colo., is not in the classroom, he is usually out walking his precinct, looking for votes in the upcoming election.
"School ends at 3:00 P.M.," he says. "I usually walk from 3:00 until 8:00." Then he goes home to take care of other campaign business or grade papers, often until 1:00 A.M.
"I do have an awful high adrenaline flow," jokes the teacher of U.S. history and government at Arvada West High School.
There are 5,961 state legislative seats up for grabs nationwide next week. And chances are that a sizable number of them will be won by educators like Mr. Pierson, or by educators' spouses.
In a 1986 study of legislators' occupations conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures, approximately 8 percent of lawmakers nationwide identified themselves as educators.
The figure included teachers, former teachers, coaches, school or college administrators, and professors.
Some 16 percent of the lawmakers identified themselves as "attorneys" and 14 percent as "business owners."
But in many states, legislators engaged in "education" outnumber those coming from any other professional background, according to William T. Pound, director of state services for the ncsl
In Rhode Island, for example, 24 percent of lawmakers are educators, as are 19 percent in Delaware, and 14 percent in Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Oregon, and West Virginia.
Why educators choose to run for state office, how much time they spend on education issues once they get there, and whether they are viewed as friends or foes by state teachers' unions and other education lobbyists differs markedly, however, from one situation to the next.
'My Life's Experience'
Mr. Pierson, for instance, says that while education is a "significant issue" in his campaign, he has much broader political interests.
"My biggest point is that I've had 24 years--half my life's experience--teaching government," he says, "and I think I know about the process."
Like other teacher-candidates, he has also been active in politics for a long time, serving as a manager for other people's campaigns.
On the other hand, Representative Tina Fallon, chairman of the House education committee in Delaware, says she first ran for office the year after she retired from teaching specifically to influence state education policy.
"I could see the great need for changes in education," says the five-term Republican legislator, "and I felt most of the people who were talking about education ... really hadn't been on the firing lines. So I thought, 'My gosh, I've had all this experience in three states and one foreign country, and I should get in there and do my 2-cents worth."'
Other education-legislators describe a deep-seated fascination with politics--often reflected in their careers as high-school history and government teachers--and a desire to "be where the action is," as one lawmaker put it, or the urge to build on their previous political activities.
Representative Gene L. Hoffman of Illinois has been a legislator for 22 years, but he began his political life as a member of the Illinois Education Association.
"I was involved with the Illinois Education Association on teacher-welfare issues," he recalls, "and they kept telling me that you had to go to the legislature to get certain things done. So I decided that I should go to the legislature, and I did."
Since then, the Republican lawmaker, who credits himself with starting the iea's political-action committee, says he has had a "falling out" with the teachers' union.
"As I got more involved in the legislative process and tried to look at things on balance, we had a falling out and they do not endorse or support me for re-election anymore," he says. "I just didn't think they were always right."
In fact, education lobbyists say the presence of educators in the leg4islature can be a "double-edged sword," in the words of Penelope Earley, director of public and governmental relations for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
"You either could have a built-in support group," she says, "or people who know the education issue well and have some dissatisfaction with it." The latter she refers to as "loving critics."
For that reason, many in the education community would prefer to have a sympathetic non-educator in the state house, says Paul R. Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association.
"It's probably easier to work with a layperson," he contends, "because sometimes people in education hold honest differences of opinion that may be very difficult to overcome."
Of the 140 legislators in Alabama, 58 are either educators, retired educators, or their spouses--a fact that some observers contend favors Mr. Hubbert.
But the union leader argues that the number of educators in the state house does not necessarily translate into votes. The political influence of his own union--which represents 92 percent of the state's classroom teachers--is more important, he asserts.
"I think most issues get decided on things other than whether [a legislator] is a teacher or not," he says.
And education-legislators "are not necessarily always together" in any case, notes Senator Rod Monroe of Oregon, a former public-school teacher. "They all tend to be supporters of education, but they often differ on collective-bargaining issues, on issues involving mandates to the school district, and so on."
Sometimes, they even find themselves voting for education bills they disagree with. Representative Barbara Perea Casey of New Mexico, for example, tells of backing home schooling, which she opposes, because her constituency supported it.
"It didn't make me a happy person," she recalls, "but I feel that I'm here to represent my constituents and I do what they want."
An 'Important' Link
But while the votes of education-legislators cannot be predicted on any single issue, their presence is beneficial to the school community over the long run, others suggest, because they tend to be better informed and more sensitive to educators' concerns.
In Minnesota, for example, 11 percent of the state's part-time legislators are educators. Rose A. Hermodson, director of legislation for the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, says that does make a difference, because prior to and immediately following each legislative session, these lawmakers are "back in the classroom teaching."
Two years ago, when the Minnesota legislature passed a bill to fund teacher centers across the state, one of the lawmakers who spoke in favor of the measure was himself the director of a teachers' center, she recalls.
Education-legislators also "cut through a lot of the untruths and misunderstandings that people have about the schools," contends Harvey B. Press, president of the Rhode Island Education Association.
And Damon P. Moore, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, says they generally understand the need for "friends of education."
He adds, however, that "every8now and then, even teachers fall prey to the most dreaded disease of the legislature: amnesia."
"They forget whence they came," he says, "Sometimes, we must remind them that they have more information than some of their colleagues, and they are professionally obligated to continue to use their teaching tools."
A Mixed Blessing
For their part, state lawmakers say that being an educator can be both a help and a hindrance.
Representative Hoffman of Illinois says that as a former teacher, he knows "what works and what doesn't work" and is able to avoid the "unintended" negative consequences of education proposals.
But others note that they have had to prove themselves to non-education peers, many of whom have little respect for teachers and view them as having a vested interest in education.
Senator Regis F. Groff of Colorado, an administrator with the Denver Public Schools, is serving his 14th year in the legislature. But while he has always been interested in education issues, he says, he did not focus on them early in his political career.
"I'm black, so I had to be concerned with trying to convince the legislature that I had an interest that transcended just social issues," he says. "You walk in, and the first thing they think you're going to talk about is welfare and housing and education."
To overcome that image, Senator Groff chose to work on consumer-rights issues, like insurance, "just so I could be seen as someone who knew something about other issues."
Even today, he asserts, his colleagues view him with mixed emotions. "They can't deny that I have a little better frame of reference to look at the issues involving education," he says. "On the other hand, they certainly think that I have a vested interest--almost a conflict of interest--and, therefore, they are suspicious or cautious."
Conflict of Interest?
Debates about whether education-legislators have a "conflict of interest"--and should be prevented from running for public office or voting on certain issues--have arisen sporadically in various states.
Earlier this year, the New Mexico attorney general ruled that Representative Casey could not run for re-election while continuing to teach in the public schools. According to the ruling, public-school teachers are state employees, and state employees cannot serve in the legislature.
Two courts later overturned the ruling, based on the fact that teachers are employed by local school boards, and not by the state. And Ms. Casey is continuing her bid for re-election, even though the attorney general has asked the state appeals court to review the case.
Representative Casey's husband, Frank Casey, describes the experience as "pure unadulterated hell."
"Educators here have just been beat into the ground," he says. "It's a sin."
In Alabama, the conflict-of-interest debate is always simmering just beneath the surface, according to Melvin G. Cooper, executive director of the state ethics commission. Many educators, including university presidents, now sit in the legislature and participate in debates and votes that affect their institutions.
Three years ago, the ethics comel10lmission tried to prevent teachers or their spouses from voting on legislation that would provide insurance coverage or pay raises for public-school employees. But the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that a public-school employee in the legislature could vote on such bills, as long as he was not affected by the measure "in a way different from ... other members of the class to which he belonged."
Mr. Cooper still maintains that there is a clear conflict of interest involved in such votes. Education-legislators, he asserts, "tend to see a number of important issues with tunnel vision--'How will this affect education?'--and not every piece of legislation should be viewed that way."
'Virtually Everyone Has Them'
Others argue that educators have no greater conflict of interest than farmers who vote on agricultural bills, or bankers who vote on banking measures.
"Virtually everybody in the legislature has conflicts of interest," says Alan Rosenthal, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "If they didn't, they wouldn't be breathing."
"I think the only thing you can do with conflicts is, for the most part, disclose them," he says. "If people know where you're coming from, that's sufficient."
In addition, Mr. Rosenthal argues, most legislative issues are decided long before they come to the floor for a vote. "If you really wanted to prevent conflicts of interest, you wouldn't let the person speak, talk to associates, or in any way advocate a point of view," he says, "and that's clearly out of the question."
In the majority of states, the presence of educators in the legislature does not appear to be a controversial issue. But in at least some, educators and others are prohibited from collecting "dual salaries" during the days the legislature meets. And in a few instances, they cannot vote on issues that would benefit them directly.
In Alabama, for example, legislators cannot receive two salaries on the same day, so most of them refuse their legislative pay--$10 a day--when there is a conflict. Mr. Cooper notes that these same lawmakers get to keep their much higher expense allowance of $85 a day.
Salary, Time Conflicts
Until recently, state legislators' salaries were hardly an inducement to serve in public office, particularly in part-time legislatures.
In the last few years, however, that situation has begun to change, especially in states with lengthy legislative sessions, like California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
When Mr. Hoffman first ran for office in Illinois, he recalls, the pay was $7,500 annually, which barely covered his leave of absence.
"It didn't make a big hit in my income," he says, "because every day I was gone from school, I didn't get paid."
Now, Illinois legislators can earn as much as $35,000 annually, he notes, and many educators who run for public office pledge to become full-time lawmakers if they win.
As of early 1986, legislative salaries ranged from $100 annually in New Hampshire to $46,800 in Alaska, with the average being just over $17,000. In addition, lawmakers in all but six states receive a per diem allowance when in session or when on legislative business.
Compared with other profession4als, educators might find this supplemental salary attractive, political observers suggest. Many lawyers can earn far more in private practice, they say, and are finding it increasingly difficult to balance their job demands with lengthy legislative sessions.
Most education-legislators interviewed last week, however, described the pay as a minimal inducement. And they said that it was often offset by the time demanded of them.
Senator Monroe of Oregon has been in the legislature for 12 years, and taught high school for nine of those. When the legislature was in session, he would take an unpaid leave from his job, he says, and "take a day off here, a day off there" for interim responsibilities.
Eventually, the pace became too bruising, Mr. Monroe says, and he was missing too many political meetings and speaking engagements scheduled during the day.
"I found that the legislature, as I was elevated to leadership positions, was almost a full-time responsibility," explains the lawmaker, who is assistant majority leader of the Oregon Senate. "I couldn't really do justice to either job by trying to maintain a classroom-teaching profession, so I went to part-time college teaching and administration."
Mr. Pierson of Colorado, on the other hand, maintains that if he wins, he wants to continue teaching his first-period class when the legislature is in session. It will be over at 8:20 A.M., he estimates, and the session at the capitol will commence "at around 9:00."
Lacks 'Political Punch'
But if Mr. Pierson hopes to climb the path to political power, education is probably not the way to get there, according to experts.
In general, education committees are not seen as particularly powerful, despite the recent surge of school reforms and the high proportion of state revenue spent on education.
Says Representative Jim F. Stoicheff, House Minority Leader in Idaho and a "teaching principal": "When you first go into the legislature, many of the freshmen will serve on education--particularly in the House--because it's not an important committee."
"It's called a major committee, it meets the same time as the other committees, but it just doesn't seem to have any punch politically," he says. "And you actually get more done for education if you serve on the finance committee, or the revenue and taxation committee, or state affairs."
Vol. 08, Issue 09