Schools Find Candidates Can Get Too Close for Comfort

By Jessica L. Sandham — December 06, 2000 7 min read
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The image has become ubiquitous during recent campaign seasons: a candidate crouched in a desk chair sized for a child, talking with students and teachers against the backdrop of a colorful classroom.

At a time when education is playing an unusually dominant role in many political races, the weeks leading up to this past Election Day were certainly no different—many candidates took pains to ensure a palpable student presence at both campaign rallies and media events. But incidents at several schools during the recently completed election cycle have raised both legal and ethical questions about how deeply students should be immersed in partisan politics.

Those cases included a political rally in California that featured a performance by a high school marching band, and another in which students were paid to knock on doors in a get-out-the-vote effort. And officials at one Virginia school called off a visit by a candidate for the U.S. Senate because they felt it was inappropriate unless his opponent was there too.

Even though most students in K-12 schools aren’t yet old enough to vote, a candidate’s desire to appear with them is understandable, said Peter Wendell, the managing editor of Campaigns and Elections, a Washington-based magazine that covers the campaign industry.

“Students make great photo ops,” Mr. Wendell said. “It’s a very feel-good image. Students are innocent; they’re the future of America.”

Although public school employees are typically barred by state and federal laws from conducting political activities using public resources, most states don’t have laws specifically prohibiting the use of students for partisan purposes, said Julie Underwood, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association. “I think in most places, that’s really done as a common-sense notion,” she said.

Line Not Clear

Still, that means that school administrators often have to figure out for themselves where to draw the line between events that expose students to valuable real-world civics lessons and those that could be construed as exploiting them for political gain.

“Certainly, the argument could be made that what better laboratory for learning than to have a national candidate interact with students,” said Perry A. Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. “The argument against it is that it shouldn’t be partisan in favor of one candidate, because these are impressionable youth.”

At La Cañada High School near Pasadena, Calif., Principal Michael Leininger says he will now think twice about involving students in the more partisan aspects of politics.

The school drew criticism after it released members of the school’s marching band from afternoon classes on Oct. 30 and bused them over to a nearby hotel to perform at a rally for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican candidate for president.

Mr. Leininger said he would have accepted a similar invitation from Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, had it been extended. That’s because he saw the rally as a great educational experience for the band members.

“We saw this as nothing more than an opportunity to see the rally up front and in person, rather than simply have a discussion in a classroom,” he said.

Under California’s education code, school districts are not permitted to use their equipment, supplies, funds, or services to urge the support or defeat of a candidate, said Roger D. Wolfertz, the deputy general counsel for the state education department. The law was likely enacted in part to prevent districts from using students in political campaigns and rallies, he said.

“It was thought to be highly inappropriate, so it was made to be illegal,” Mr. Wolfertz said. However, he said, the state has no plans to take action against La Cañada school officials.

Mr. Leininger said the school would now carefully consider before accepting invitations that weren’t politically balanced.

“I guess what it comes down to is that with partisan politics, as with everything in high school, we have to present both sides,” he said.

Band members at Canyon High School in Anaheim, Calif., were also caught up in a partisan-related controversy recently when the band accepted a fund- raising opportunity offered by the Orange County Republican Party. The party paid $50 per volunteer to a group of 82 parents and students to knock on the doors of registered Republicans after school on Election Day and remind them to vote. In all, the group raised more than $4,000 for the band.

The school’s band director, Harold Witten, said the students volunteered to canvass after school hours, did not wear identifying band uniforms, and did not encourage people to cast their ballots for specific candidates. For those reasons, he said, they violated no state laws. Band members took part in a similar activity two years ago, he added.

“If the Democrats had offered to pay me, I would have walked for the Democrats,” Mr. Witten said. “You can only sell so many candy bars and Christmas wrapping paper and magazines.”

Ralph A. Jameson, the assistant superintendent for secondary education for the Orange County schools, said the district was unaware of the fund-raising activity because Mr. Witten had not filled out an activity-request form.

“We received some complaints from parents, but we also received some calls in support of the activity,” Mr. Jameson said. “But I think we need to draw the line as an organization in affiliating students with a political party.”

Candidate Unwelcome

School officials at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., were similarly concerned with fairness when they rejected an effort by Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Democrat then locked in a fiercely fought campaign for re-election, to join forces with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson for an event at the school in September.

The school was already receiving a great deal of publicity because its 1971 championship football team had inspired the recently released movie “Remember the Titans.” The film, featuring the actor Denzel Washington, told the story of how two coaches empowered the racially mixed team to overcome racial divisions and become champions.

Around the time that the movie was released, Mr. Jackson—an active leader in the Democrats’ get-out-the- vote efforts this fall—got in touch with the school and asked if he could visit and invite students to register to vote. School officials agreed, on the condition that the visit by the civil rights leader be nonpartisan.

The next day, said Principal John L. Porter, the school heard that Mr. Robb was also planning to come along. School officials asked the senator not to come, and Mr. Robb, who ultimately lost his re-election bid to former Gov. George F. Allen, agreed to stay away.

“You’ve got someone who was running for a political office with an election that was six weeks away, and I felt that unless it was open to all parties concerned, it was not appropriate,” Mr. Porter said.

In the end, Mr. Jackson came and talked to students about the importance of voting, a presentation that was nonpartisan in nature, Mr. Porter said.

Not all schools are such reluctant hosts, however. Officials at South Doyle Middle School in Knoxville, Tenn., for example, didn’t hesitate when they were asked to host a rally for Gov. Bush on Oct. 24. The rally eventually grew so large that the school’s own students were not able to attend it. But later, at Mr. Gore’s invitation, some students from the same school attended a rally for the vice president at a nearby airport.

“We were asked if we were willing to host [the rally for Mr. Bush] and, of course, we said we would,” said Gary Mahoney, the principal of the 1,200-student school. “What a great opportunity for our students.”

But even though the students were not able to attend the rally for Mr. Bush, Mr. Mahoney said both rallies were events a “school can only dream about having, really.”

When given the opportunity, most school districts “wouldn’t tell a governor or a president that he wasn’t welcome to visit, even if it is a campaign stop, because there is a benefit to the school and the community,” said Stuart L. Knave, the chief counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. “I’m sure that outweighs any concerns schools might have that someone is using them for campaign purposes.”

Selected students at Ringgold High School in Monongahela, a town in western Pennsylvania, were not only released from school on Oct. 26 to attend a nearby rally for Mr. Gore at which his wife, Tipper, appeared, but they also collected tickets, passed out fliers, and painted signs—including one reading “Tipper Rocks.” The school’s band and cheerleaders performed at the rally too.

“The students also directed elderly and handicapped people; they did whatever we were asked to do,” said Lori A. Bartley, the director of student activities at the 1,200-student high school. “The Gore people told us we went above and beyond what other people were doing.”

Still, she added, “our school district did consider this an educational experience, and not a political situation.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Schools Find Candidates Can Get Too Close for Comfort


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