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Education Is Political. Can Teachers Afford Not to Be?

By Ross Brenneman — May 01, 2015 6 min read
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Congress is at work on the reauthorization of the nation’s top education law. State governments are constantly weighing policies on testing, standards, and curriculum. Districts must enact rules in response to these policies, as well as to address local concerns.

Yet as political as education issues can be, teachers, charged with ultimate execution of new policies, often refrain from viewing themselves as political. Even as some members of the profession rage against tests, or certain teacher-evaluation proposals, or any number of other policies, many don’t want the “political” label.

“[Teachers] want to tell legislators what’s going on, they want legislators to visit their classrooms, they want people to help them have the tools and conditions they need to do their job,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers. “They don’t see that as political, they just see that as part of, ‘Help me do my job.’”

But: Curriculum is political. Standards are political. Testing is political. Funding is political.

Education is political. Can teachers not be?

Teacher Meets Legislature

Every year, Washington plays host to several “legislative advocacy” conferences. They serve as occasions for members of an organizing group to come to the nation’s capital and get training in political advocacy, as well as a chance to talk to lawmakers themselves.

This past winter, the prominent curriculum group ASCD invited a corps of teachers to Georgetown, where they learned from experts about how to interact with the delicate beasts known as politicians. Preparing attendees to meet with congressional representatives, political strategist John Gundlach taught the audience how to make concise points and use thoughtful, human stories.

Attendees heard a great deal more advice before the morning ended.

Don’t become sidetracked. Don’t become frustrated. Don’t whine. Don’t argue. Don’t interrupt. Invite for a school visit!

Attendees come to these kinds of conferences to learn, but also to help tout the message the sponsoring organization is trying to spread. In ASCD’s case, talking points focused on items for inclusion in the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But superintendents have a legislative advocacy conference through AASA, the School Superintendents Association, as do state superintendents through the Council of Chief State School Officers, among other groups at both the national and state level.

Caitlin Harris, an 11th grade English teacher in Russellville, Ark., attended the ASCD conference to better understand how to approach members of her state legislature.

“I feel like a lot of times teachers are reactionary, and we just get passed down mandates and we don’t ever get involved on the front end to help craft policy and be a part of the decisionmaking,” Harris said.

Now she’s learning to talk to the people in charge of federal policy. And yet:

“I don’t consider myself a political person. I consider myself a teacher,” Harris said, with a tone of mutual exclusivity.

For teachers who want their colleagues to step up their activism, Harris suggested finding a niche interest.

“Figure out what policies they care about and craft a message for them so they understand what governs what they care about,” she said.

Ms. Everette Goes to Washington

Meghan Everette, an elementary school teacher in Daphne, Ala., roamed the halls of Congress with other members of her state ASCD chapter during the legislative advocacy conference, talking to politicians about the issues facing their state’s public schools.

Everette, a teacher of numerous low-income students, was there in part to point out hardships her students face on a daily basis. She’s also concerned, though, about professional development; at her current school, it consists of visits from local personnel.

“I feel like most people in our district are district people, so they grew up there, they went to school there, that’s all they’ve ever been,” she said. “I just feel like that’s a very narrow view of the world.”

Everette said that professional learning doesn’t suffer because of misguided administrators, but because of ever-looming financial issues. “They just truly do not have the money to be able to send you out of the classroom and pay for that sub that day.”

The hope was that a member of Congress will take that into consideration while weighing any possible increase in Title I funding, which benefits low-income students. Most representatives, however, weren’t in their offices when Everette’s group arrived; staff members fielded most of the meetings—it’s how things are done. One of the few lawmakers they did meet had to doublecheck his office’s stance on ESEA, after some gossip about an NFL quarterback’s wife.

Remember! Don’t become sidetracked. Don’t become frustrated. Don’t whine. Don’t argue. Don’t interrupt. Invite for a school visit!

If this is politics, this may explain why teachers are hesitant to embrace it.

Entering the Fray

Many teachers are political, like those at the Seattle high school who gained national attention for boycotting a district test in 2013. Teachers get political on blogs and on social media. Teachers have rallied for more school funding, as in Detroit this week, or less testing, as in Toledo, Ohio, in March.

But many more teachers are the kind of head-down, nose-to-the-grindstone type, apathetic toward politics or wary of making waves.

“[Many teachers] didn’t get into teaching to be political in any way,” said Va. kindergarten teacher Jennifer Orr. And many don’t need to be, she added, but “there should be a place for teacher voice at the table.”

Some teachers actually go into politics, but the number of teachers in a legislative body is a poor determinant of their effect on education policy.

According to U.S. House of Representatives biographical information, there are about two dozen former practicing educators in that chamber, as well as a select few others with school board experience. But the House Education and the Workforce Committee—the group with primary responsibility over education policy like ESEA—has exactly one former practicing teacher: Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif.

“Most teachers want to teach because they have an ingrained sense of mission,” Mr. Takano said. “They weren’t called to be politicians.”

Mr. Takano taught for over 20 years in Rialto, Calif., but had long been political, which he chalks up in part to being both gay and Asian, two types of minorities with separate histories of being discriminated against. He won office in 2012.

A lot of teachers refrain from overt political involvement, Mr. Takano said, so long as their working conditions and class sizes aren’t terrible. “They went into the profession knowing they weren’t going to make Wall Street-sized salaries.”

But it’s important for teachers to be politically knowledgeable, he added. “Teachers have to be aware enough to know their interests and [what helps] their profession.”

In the U.S. Senate, a handful of senators (almost all Democrats) involved in K-12 policy have had teaching experience. A former pre-K teacher, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has been most central to education policy, as the Democrat leading her party’s negotiation of a new ESEA reauthorization with Senate Republicans.

But, as the AFT’s Weingarten points out, average teacher salaries don’t accommodate running for office.

“It’s harder today to run for office if you’re a regular human being, as opposed to someone who’s very, very wealthy,” she said.

More to the point, she said, is that policymakers at all levels can help by listening when teachers do speak.

“[Teachers] feel like their voices don’t matter, and they feel like no one’s listening to them,” she said. “And part of [the solution] is saying that your voice really does matter, and what you do in classrooms is the most important work in the United States.”

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Image credit: Dave Newman/Flickr Creative Commons

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