EDUCATION and POLITICS

Like many educators, I tended -perhaps naively - to regard public education as a non-political arena. I now realize that while, in many districts, candidates for election to Boards of Education are non-partisan (no stated party affiliation), the process by which we determine the structure and funding of our school system is inherently a political process. Which is as it should be, given the importance of public education to the functioning of our society. Therefore, I have gradually shifted from the attitude of an educator who votes for candidates hoping they will do their best to further public education, to a civic activist who believes that it is vitally important for all of us to work to elect the candidates we believe are most likely to further the cause of quality education and then to provide feedback to those elected officials while they are serving, especially if we feel they are not making the best decisions regarding our educational systems. I see no reason why I should not be very vigorous in supporting the campaigns of those I believe will do the best job regarding education. And I have come to view it as an extension of my career as an educator to attempt to educate the voting public who - for whatever reason(s) - have not informed theselves on these issues.

In pursuing these activities, I have sometimes functioned as a representative of a specific organization while, at other times I have acted as an individual citizen. Like many other activists, I have been acutely aware of the potential for conflicts of interest - real or perceived. This is not a trivial issue, but that does not - in my opinion - preclude functioning 'with multiple hats'. The crucial element is to wear only one hat at a time, to be quite explicit about which hat is being worn, and to examine each of ones actions to be sure one has made ever effort to avoid speaking, acting, or writing in a way that is likely to lead others to be confused as to which hat one was/is wearing in any given circumstance. Because my activities in this arena shed light on my overall perspectives on the interface of education and politics, I think it appropriate to give a few examples of what I mean:

-> I have testified before both the Board of Education and the County Council numerous times, primarily on issues related to public education. In each case, I have stated clearly, both in oral testimony and in submitted written record, whether I was speaking as an individual or was representing an organization.

-> As chair of the Montgomery County Civic Federation (MCCF) I organized Board of Education Candidate Forums and co-ordinated the preparation of questionnaires, to which each candidate was asked to respond. The responses were collated and made available to the MCCF membership and, via the MCCF website, to the public. I also moderated one of the actual forums. I am quite confident that I was scrupulously even-handed in such matters as the selection of questions, 'enforcing' space (written) and time (speaking) limitations, allocating time for candidates to reply to citizen questions, etc. But, when one candidate questioned my 'fairness', I re-evaluated the overall mechanism and recused myself from functioning as moderator of a subsequent forum in an election campaign where I was quite open in my support of certain candidates.

-> When contacted by members of the media I have repeatedly stated what was my personal opinion and what was - as I understood it - the view of the organization of which I was perceived (by the reporter) to be a spokesperson.

-> When I campaign on behalf of one or more candidates for the Board of Education (BoE), I take great pains to make it clear that I am speaking as an individual. I also try to explain to potential voters (many of whom have not taken the time to become familiar with the candidates' backgrounds, positions on issues, etc.) why I am supporting the candidate(s) and why I believe it is so important for the public to become informed about such issues and cast 'informed votes', even if they vote for a candidate I do not support. I also urge voters to 'follow-up', by watching how those elected to the BoE perform and contacting those elected to let them know if one feels they are making a mistake on any given issue. Perhaps most importantly, I have made it a practice to inform any candidate that I supported and who was elected, that I would remain a resource for them and would be happy to talk with them, from time to time, about current issues. And when we meet, I make it very clear when I am speaking as an individual citizen (who is concerned about public education) and when I am reflecting the opinions I share with members of some specific organization of which I am a member. This is my way of stating that I recognize the potential for confusing such contacts with elected officials as 'lobbying', but do not regard lobbying as inherently inimical to the democratic process: the crucial test, I think, is whether the person 'lobbying' is doing so for personal gain (or the benefit of the organization of which s/he is a member), as apposed to offering the official the insights of an interested citizen who wants to see the democratic process work as it is supposed to work - for the benefit of the broader community.

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Last modified: Sunday, February 15, 2009