Special Education

Candidates Can Relate to Teachers

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 27, 2008 7 min read
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Addressing the National Education Association’s convention in Philadelphia last year, eight presidential hopefuls took turns trying to one-up each other on their street credibility with classroom teachers. The seven Democrats and one Republican promised the 9,000 delegates to the union’s Representative Assembly to consult teachers when developing education policy.

“I understand my friend the governor of New Mexico was here the other day, and he said he would appoint a teacher to be the secretary of education,” Sen. Joe Biden said, referring to Bill Richardson, a then-rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. “That’s a great idea, but I have one better. How about a teacher living in the White House, sleeping with the president?”

Nearly 16 months later, of course, Sen. Barack Obama’s pick as his running mate on the Democratic ticket is Sen. Biden, whose wife, Jill Biden, is a former high school English teacher and current community college instructor. For the more staid general-election season, the Delaware Democrat has retired the risqué line, but the 2007 quip nevertheless highlights of one of the intangibles playing into this election: Just how much does the “teacher factor” influence a candidate’s views on education?

It is no small question, as each of the presidential and vice presidential candidates on the two major-party tickets has at least one close relative who now works, or formerly served, as a teacher. Besides Sen. Biden’s wife, Sen. Obama has a half-sister who teaches in Hawaii. On the Republican side, Cindy McCain, the wife of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, was trained as a special education teacher, while Gov. Sarah Palin has several family members with lifelong careers in education.

“When you have a relative who’s a teacher, ... you know the kinds of time they spend after school, grading papers in the evening; how when you take them to a meeting, they collect all the pencils on the table,” said John I. Wilson, the executive director of the 3.2 million-member NEA. “We always know that politics is about relationships, and there’s nothing like having relatives in education that inspires politicians to be better advocates.”

Education Household

Of the four candidates, Ms. Palin, the Alaska governor, grew up with the most firsthand experience with educators at home.

Sally and Charles R. Heath

Her father, Charles R. Heath, 70, taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels before retiring in 1987. Her brother, Charles W. Heath, 46, teaches mainly 6th graders at Gladys Woods Elementary School, in Anchorage. (He is on a leave of absence during the campaign.) Ms. Palin’s mother, Sally Heath, who turned 68 on Oct. 26, worked as a school secretary.

Sarah Palin’s “interest was in current events and history,” her father said in an interview last week. “She would read the newspaper. I’d grab the sports page, and she’d read the national news, every day, cover to cover, as a 4th grader even.”

“We weren’t a great political family, still aren’t,” he added. “She was our politician, and she kept us informed on a lot of things.”

The candidate’s brother, known as Chuck, said in a separate interview, “A lot of our nights revolved around schools and school functions. There was a high priority placed on education in our house, and it was an absolute given that high school wasn’t the end; we were expected to go to college.”

Sen. Obama also has a number of educator-relatives, among them his half-sister Maya K. Soetoro-Ng, who holds a doctorate in education and has taught in regular public schools or charter schools for 15 years in New York City and Hawaii.

Ms. Soetoro-Ng, who at 38 is nine years younger than Sen. Obama, now teaches at a private school, La Pietra Hawaii School for Girls, in Honolulu.

In an interview, she described the Illinois Democrat’s view of education as one that transcends traditional conceptions of teaching. She attributed that partly to the fact that their mother, Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, home-schooled the siblings at various times, and to her brother’s penchant for supplementing her own learning opportunities outside classroom walls.

Maya K. Soetoro-Ng

Mr. Obama gave Ms. Soetoro-Ng novels by Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, signed her up for classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, and helped her find her first teaching job at a local youth center affiliated with the University of Chicago, she recounted in an interview this month. Later, when she was teaching in New York City, she would replicate some of those experiences for her own students, taking them uptown to visit the Museo Del Barrio.

“[Sen. Obama] has always been privy to my struggles as a teacher in a school on the Lower East Side,” said Ms. Soetoro-Ng. “He was aware of the fact that, sometimes, schools worked hard to create safe environments, but very often these kids grew up with dangers in the neighborhood and a lack of societal support.

“He was aware that because of a narrowing of these kids’ windows and the absence of a safety net, really bright kids might not do well.”

Matters of Policy

Despite such close connections, observers said there is a world of difference between a candidate’s general outlook on education through relatives in the field and his or her specific policy positions.

“I think it does matter, [but] how much is maybe hard to say,” said Patrick McGuinn, an assistant professor of political science at Drew University, in Madison, N.J.

President Bush serves as one example in which the passion of an educator in the family appears to have helped shape policy.

Laura Bush, the first lady, taught as an elementary school teacher and then worked as a school librarian.

“Clearly, [literacy] was her issue and something she had experience in and was passionate about. You get the largest, most targeted federal reading program in history as part of that,” Mr. McGuinn said about the federal Reading First program, a $1 billion-a-year effort authorized as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

It is comparatively more difficult to draw such connections between Sen. McCain and his wife.

Cindy McCain holds a master’s degree in special education and formerly taught in that field at the Agua Fria High School, in Arizona. But she has remained largely silent about those experiences. Although her husband has commented generally on the need to support students with disabilities, his performance during the final presidential debate raised some concerns among special educators.

“Town hall meeting after town hall meeting, parents come with kids, children—precious children who have autism. Sarah Palin knows about that better than most,” Sen. McCain said during that Oct. 15 debate.

Some commentators later questioned whether the Republican nominee had confused the nature of the disability of Gov. Palin’s 6-month-old son Trig, who has Down syndrome. (The governor does have a nephew who has autism, and Sen. McCain did not clarify his comment.)

Jill Biden with her granddaughter Natalie

Sen. Biden has explicitly attributed several of his education policy positions to the experiences of his wife, Jill, who holds a doctorate in education, taught English in public schools for 13 years, and is now in her 15th year as an English-composition instructor at a Delaware community college.

“An excellent teacher should be judged by whether or not that teacher, outside of the classroom, improves themselves and their teaching skills,” Sen. Biden said when asked about performance-based pay for educators during a 2007 Democratic primary-season debate. “My wife got two master’s degrees and a doctorate degree. That’s merit pay.”

That position, which reflects what is already common practice in determining teacher pay levels, differs somewhat from that of his running mate. Sen. Obama’s stance on performance pay does not discount using student test scores as one measure of teacher performance.

Representatives from the McCain and Obama campaigns did not respond to requests seeking comment for this story.

Sibling Talk

Ms. Soetoro-Ng said Sen. Obama did not consult her directly when crafting his education platform, but she said that her brother likely weighed her experiences as a teacher alongside feedback from hundreds of other educators.

“He asked me conversationally about [educational topics],” she said in the interview. “But he’s never been one to get information from one source. ... The platform reflects things I’ve talked about, certainly. I don’t know if he took inspiration from that.”

Charles W. Heath with his sisters Sarah, right, and Heather

Charles Heath, Gov. Palin’s brother, said he and his sister share a vision for “front-loading” early-childhood education.

“She and I are both very interested in ... putting more resources toward programs like Best Beginnings [an Alaska public-private partnership program] and Head Start,” he said in the interview, “and not just making sure those programs are available to everyone, but also making sure that they have some kind of standardized curriculum that’s going to give these young kids some basic decoding skills, some basic phonics skills, and some basic math skills.”

Gov. Palin’s enthusiasm for early education and increased education funding, as expressed during the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate, won praise even from some supporters of the Democratic ticket.

“I have to say, when Sarah Palin talked about [education], I readily saw that she gets it—she understands from the time she spends with her family,” said Mr. Wilson of the NEA, which has endorsed Sen. Obama for president. “On that issue, I thought [her comments] resonated. You could tell that she was very empathetic with teachers.”

Library Intern Jessica Cain contributed research to this story.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week as Candidates Can Relate to Teachers


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