Campaign K-12 Notebook

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Teachers’ Campaign Buttons Stir Up Controversy

Teachers around the country have come under fire in recent weeks for showing their support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in the classroom.

In New York City, the school system has clamped down on a United Federation of Teachers plan to encourage its members to wear pro-Obama buttons in their classrooms.

Meanwhile, the Virginia Education Association sent out an e-mail encouraging its members to wear “Obama Blue”—meaning blue shirts or other clothing, but no overt Obama messages—on Sept. 30, prompting outrage among state Republicans about political influence in the public schools.

And in Soquel, Calif., a group of teachers at Soquel High School in the Santa Cruz City School District agreed to stop wearing “Educators for Obama” buttons in the classroom after a request from school officials. The school cited advisory opinions from the California attorney general that teachers could wear such buttons in some circumstances around school, but not in the classroom.

The incidents have reignited questions about the scope of teachers’ free-speech rights and the place of politics in the classroom and the rest of the school building.

A Barack Obama button is pinned on a tree at Soquel (Calif.) High School late last month.
A Barack Obama button is pinned on a tree at Soquel (Calif.) High School late last month.
—Photo by Bill Lovejoy/The Santa Cruz Sentinel

“Schools are not a place for politics and not a place for staff to wear political buttons,” Ann Forte, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education, was quoted as saying in the New York Post on Oct. 2. “We don’t want students feeling intimidated because they might hold a different belief or support a different candidate than their teachers.”

The 1.1 million-student school system sent out a reminder to school principals of a regulation for school personnel that says: “No material supporting any candidate, candidates, slate of candidates, or political organizations/committees may be distributed, posted, or displayed in any school building. … While on duty or in contact with students, all school personnel shall maintain a posture of complete neutrality with respect to all candidates.”

UFT President Randi Weingarten said in an Oct. 2 statement that the union sent a letter to New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein asking him to reconsider his position on political buttons, but asserting that if an amicable solution can’t be reached, “we will pursue the matter further.”

“Teachers know how to balance their roles as educators and their roles as citizens to freely express themselves,” said the statement by Ms. Weingarten, who is also the president of the UFT’s parent, the American Federation of Teachers, which has endorsed Sen. Obama for president.

Gregory H. Perry, a Lincoln, Neb., lawyer who focuses on civil rights and school law, said teachers’ speech, including the wearing of political buttons, may be regulated by school districts in light of a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Garcetti v. Ceballos.

In Garcetti, the justices held 5-4 that when public employees speak “pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes.” There has been disagreement among lower courts interpreting that decision over whether it applies to K-12 teachers, since the Supreme Court suggested it might view public employees’ speech involving “scholarship or teaching” differently.

But most lawyers for school districts embrace the ruling.

“Teachers maintain First Amendment rights, but Garcetti makes us look at what ‘hat’ they’re wearing when they’re speaking,” said Mr. Perry, who co-wrote a paper on teacher speech this year for the National School Boards Association’s Council of School Attorneys.

“If they’re wearing their employee hat while speaking, which is primarily the hat they’re wearing while speaking to students, the school can control their speech,” he said. “When they’re wearing their citizen hat, they are protected by free speech.”

Mr. Perry said that political buttons worn in the classroom, along with shirts that “obviously convey a political position,” would fall under the same restrictions as other employee speech. —Josh Cohen

Which Education Adviser Speaks for Barack Obama?

For months, Washington insiders have been wondering: Which of Sen. Barack Obama’s many education advisers gives the most accurate description of the Democratic presidential nominee’s beliefs on the subject?

At an Oct. 8 forum sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, Frederick M. Hess, the AEI’s director of education studies, asked Michael Johnston, one of the Obama campaign’s advisers on education, about that. Mr. Hess noted that the Obama team includes Mr. Johnston and other alumni of the Teach For America program as well as Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor who has been a critic of TFA.

Sen. Obama likes to seek advice from people with differing points of view, said Mr. Johnston, the principal of Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts, near Denver.

“At the end of the day, he makes decisions based on what he thinks is important,” said Mr. Johnston, who helped start New Leaders for New Schools with Jonathan H. Schnur—also on the Obama team.

In particular, Mr. Johnston pointed to Sen. Obama’s Sept. 9 speech on education in Riverside, Ohio. The candidate went to a state where charter schools have been controversial, particularly among teachers’ unions, and said that he would double federal funding for charter schools, Mr. Johnston said at the AEI forum, which focused on both major presidential candidates’ ideas to promote social entrepreneurship.

The answer didn’t satisfy Lisa Graham Keegan, who has been the primary spokeswoman on education for presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee.

“I’ve had the opportunity to debate about seven different people,” Ms. Keegan, a former Arizona schools chief, said of her campaign-season matchups against Obama representatives.

Education Week has covered events at which Ms. Keegan or another surrogate for the McCain campaign faced off, individually, against six different education advisers to the Obama campaign.

In particular, Ms. Darling-Hammond’s message hasn’t been consistent with those of other advisers on whether Sen. Obama supports linking teacher pay to students’ test scores, Ms. Keegan said.

“I’m going to tell you right now, she’s not going to say what you’re saying unless you all have had a come-to-Jesus moment,” Ms. Keegan said to Mr. Johnston about Ms. Darling-Hammond.

What matters, Mr. Johnston responded, is what Sen. Obama has said.

“The proof of that is in the words of the senator and the platform,” he said. —David J. Hoff

Alaska Educators Offer Gov. Palin Advice on Issues Close to Home

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin used the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate to stress her expertise with energy. But it seems the governor, who became a national figure overnight when Republican presidential nominee John McCain tapped her as his running mate, has an energy crisis back home that’s hitting both rural and urban schools particularly hard.

In a letter to Gov. Palin late last month, Anchorage school district Superintendent Carol Comeau and the city’s mayor, Mark Begich, urged her not to “stand by and tolerate the deterioration of rural Alaska.”

Residents of the state’s small rural communities are fleeing those areas—and their schools—for urban Anchorage, where gas, heating fuel, and food are cheaper and social services are easier to get. In some rural areas, the price of gas has hit $11 a gallon.

In the nearly two months since the school year began, the exodus has resulted in an additional 500 Native Alaskan students for the 50,000-student Anchorage district, which has had to hire an additional 18 teachers.

At the same time, enrollments in schools serving rural communities are plummeting. The Sept. 29 letter points out that the Bristol Bay school district has seen its enrollment drop by about 20 percent and has reached a 20-year low of just 140 students.

Anchorage’s superintendent and mayor have urged Gov. Palin to set up a local-state-federal task force to address the issue.

Responding in an Oct. 8 letter, Gov. Palin said she would direct her rural subcabinet to more closely examine the issue. Her letter indicated that while high fuel prices have not been found be to be a definite cause of migration, “they could be a significant factor.”

The governor added that her energy coordinator was working on a plan to help Alaskans cope with high energy costs. —Michele McNeil

Vol. 28, Issue 08, Pages 25, 27

Published in Print: October 15, 2008, as Campaign K-12 Notebook
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