Federal

Political Waters Get Muddy When Schools Are Involved

By Alan Richard — February 25, 2004 4 min read
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Critics cried foul when they learned that some of the thousands of Maryland educators, parents, and students who gathered Feb. 9 to rally for greater state spending on public schools had traveled to the state Capitol in Annapolis on school buses, during school hours. And in some cases, they protested, students had earned credits toward graduation for their attendance.

Chief among the critics was Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who called for the state education superintendent to investigate the student credits and look into the early dismissals.

“I don’t think at the time that anyone who participated thought that it would become an issue of this magnitude,” said Athena Ware, the spokeswoman for the 137,000-student Prince George’s County, Md., school district, which borders the District of Columbia.

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Read the accompanying story, “Indianapolis Teacher Puts Students to Work on His Bid to Become a State Lawmaker.”

But the debate in Maryland and similar incidents in other states underscore the questions that arise over the use of school time and resources for political purposes.

Rules governing the use of school time for political causes differ by state. District policies also vary. But school leaders would do well to use common sense and make room for differing opinions, said Julie Underwood, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

“The type of political activity is going to determine some of what you can and can’t do,” Ms. Underwood said. “If it’s intended to make a political statement, that’s going to be a very touchy issue for schools, because you aren’t going to be able to require students to make one political statement over another.”

Fliers and E-mails

Beyond political rallies, educators and school leaders face all sorts of decisions related to political activity and its limits in schools.

In Florida, an anti-tax group recently demanded that a suburban school system halt the distribution of fliers supporting a local 1-cent sales-tax increase that would help build and renovate schools in the 55,000-student Pasco County system outside Tampa.

Ann Bunting, the leader of Citizens Against the Penny for Pasco, contends the school district is violating state rules and children’s rights by distributing materials on campuses about the sales-tax proposal, which goes to a vote March 9.

“It was just going too far,” said Ms. Bunting, who teaches English at a community college and opposes the measure.

She said the district sent home fliers with students, designated employees to work for the tax increase, and posted advertisements in schools and on the district’s Web site for the plan.

Ray Gadd, who is leading the sales-tax drive for the Pasco County schools, said the district has refused to distribute materials from political-action committees on both sides in the penny-tax debate.

State law and court opinions allow the schools themselves to advertise the benefits they will receive from the tax, and for school employees to spend work hours sharing information. The district and school Web sites also provide links to a site supporting the tax.

Elsewhere, a school employee in North Carolina forced a change in the Mooresville school district’s policies when she sent an e-mail last fall to hundreds of school employees urging them to back her campaign to become a town commissioner.

The 4,300-student district north of Charlotte now allows only a few top officials to send out mass e- mails to employees, said Mooresville schools spokeswoman Boen Nutting.

And in Wisconsin, a lawsuit filed Dec. 8 aims to overturn the Milwaukee city school system’s broad rules against political activity that some teachers say prohibit them from wearing stickers or buttons in support of specific political candidates, among other activities.

Advice and Investigations

Ms. Underwood of the National School Boards Association advises schools not to allow educators or administrators to advocate political causes—even ones directly related to schools—while on the clock.

“You’re not supposed to be engaging in political activity in your capacity as a public employee, and that’s hard for school districts because of participation in the area of bond elections,” Ms. Underwood said. “If [the superintendent] goes to the Kiwanis Club or the business roundtable at lunch and speaks, she is on her own free time.”

“And that’s the way we do it,” she added, “because it keeps it clean.”

Otherwise, school systems must be willing to provide a forum for the opposition, she said. Many districts are seeking help from community groups to organize after-hours events “so that there isn’t a question of impropriety,” Ms. Underwood said.

In Maryland, all students in the Prince George’s County schools were dismissed two hours early to clear the way for use of school buses to drive local residents to the rally in Annapolis, Ms. Ware said.

Ms. Ware added that churches and community groups had helped pay for the bus trips to the state capital, and that the school system had not violated any state laws or rules. The district did not offer service-learning credit for students who attended the rally.

“The groundswell of support coming from the community said that this was something our community supported,” Ms. Ware said.

The neighboring 139,000-student Montgomery County district allowed some students to earn service credit through attendance at the rally and follow-up work connected to the event, said district spokesman Brian J. Porter.

Maryland Department of Education spokesman Ronald A. Peiffer said that state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick was investigating the service credits awarded for the rally, but added that she was more worried that schools had let students out early.

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