Teaching Profession

Hatch Job: D.C. Teacher Loses Post Over Run for Office

By Erik W. Robelen — April 24, 2002 3 min read
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If Tom Briggs taught school in Washington’s Virginia or Maryland suburbs, he probably would still have a job.

But a little-known provision of federal law prohibits teachers in the District of Columbia from running for political office. And now Mr. Briggs, a social studies teacher at Dunbar Senior High School here who ran for the District of Columbia Council in 2000, has been sent notice that he would lose his job as of April 23.

Public school teachers in every state have long been exempt from the 62-year-old Hatch Act, the law that limits the political activities of certain government employees. But as part of revisions made to the law in 1993, teachers here lost that protection. Some suggest the change amounted to a technical error. If so, it was never fixed.

“I’m outraged,” Mr. Briggs, 41, said of the decision to fire him. “This isn’t a job for me, this is my life.” He said the law unfairly singles out teachers in Washington.

James A. Baxley, the deputy general counsel for the 67,000-student school system, said the district simply followed orders from the federal government.

“The federal law here is pretty clear,” Mr. Baxley said. He noted that the federal Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the Hatch Act, warned Mr. Briggs during his 2000 campaign that he was violating the law. “He refused to either abandon his candidacy or resign his position,” Mr. Baxley said.

Mr. Briggs acknowledges that he was given fair warning. He explained that since his students, family, and friends knew he was running, he felt it would have been a mistake to drop out.

“I thought it was important to make a stand against this unfair law,” he said. He ultimately lost in his bid as a D.C. Statehood Green Party candidate challenging incumbent Democrat Jack Evans for a seat on the council.

Law’s History

The Hatch Act restricts the political activities of executive-branch employees of the federal government, as well as certain state and local agencies. In 1993, Congress altered the law to allow most federal and District of Columbia government employees to engage in many, but not all, types of political activities. For example, they can now take part in political campaigns, but are still prohibited from running for public office.

A recent Washington Post story quoted a former Senate aide involved in the 1993 effort, who essentially said deleting the Hatch Act exemption for Washington schoolteachers was a technical error that did not get fixed because of political complications.

Leslie Phillips, a spokeswoman for Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Democrats, said, “The committee is investigating the history of this amendment to determine if in fact it was a mistake and to see if there’s anything that needs to be done about it.”

Matthew Yeo, Mr. Briggs’ lawyer, said that his client was appealing the federal order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears appeals of federal administrative decisions. Mr. Briggs plans to file a motion this week that would allow him to keep his job while the case is pending.

The action to dismiss Mr. Briggs came after the school district received a federal order to do so. The Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent federal agency, late last month granted the Office of Special Counsel’s petition for disciplinary action against him.

Meanwhile, William Lockridge, the vice president of the District of Columbia school board, put forward a resolution supporting Mr. Briggs at a board meeting last week. The board did not vote on it.

What if efforts to reinstate Mr. Briggs fail?

“I don’t know what I will do,” he said. “I refuse to make any future plans because I’m optimistic and I’m very idealistic, and it’s very hard for me to believe that when a rule is so blatantly unjust, that the system will follow it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Hatch Job: D.C. Teacher Loses Post Over Run for Office

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