As we prepare for our national elections, it is well worth remembering that the highest office in American democracy is not the President, but the citizen. In a democracy, “we the people” – the body of citizens – must rule. Elected officials, including our President, are only our representatives; they exercise the powers we grant to them.
The citizen bears not only rights, but responsibilities. Our vote and our participation in free and fair elections that choose our representatives is not simply the greatest power and right of the citizenry, won by Americans who struggled courageously throughout our history to extend the franchise to all, regardless of class, sex and race. Just as importantly, it is our greatest civic responsibility. The strength and resilience, the purpose and ends, of democracy rests upon the active participation of the citizenry in elections: to the extent that government does not have a clear mandate of the citizenry due to widespread abstention from the electoral process, its authority is greatly diminished. That is the import of Thomas Jefferson’s and John Locke’s famous notion that legitimate government is based on the consent of the governed.
Teachers have a unique and special responsibility in a democracy: we are citizens in our own right, and we are the educators of the next generation of citizens. Properly understood, these two roles are inextricably linked, one to the other. One does not educate youth into democratic citizenship by lecture and dictate. Rather, it is essential that we teachers model good citizenship and that our classrooms embody the fundamental values of free expression, fairness and thoughtful deliberation that define all democratic decision-making, including free elections. Students learn how to be good citizens by actual practicing the skills of citizenship in the classroom and in the school. In so doing, they develop the capacity to think critically and independently and to engage in dialogue and debate on matters political. In this respect, presidential elections are a special “teachable moment,” in which students are unusually motivated and predisposed to engage in the practice of those skills, taking the first steps in critical thought and political debate. At this and other times, a teacher must be a good democratic citizen to be an educator of democratic citizenship.
The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of political expression and freedom of political association is thus an indispensable foundation of both democratic citizenship and citizenship education in the United States. The will of the people can only be known and exercised when three conditions are met: first, there is a robust and vigorous public debate which presents policy alternatives; second, there is a clear choice between representatives who are pledged to enact those policy alternatives; and third, there is a deliberative process in which the citizenry – as well as the candidates for public office – engage each other. Without freedom of expression and freedom of association, none of this is possible; it is the sine qua non of democracy. This is why the Supreme Court has given the broadest protections, among all constitutional rights, to political expression and association. Similarly, citizenship education in the classroom demands a foundation of free expression and free inquiry.
The founding slogan of the American Federation of Teachers, “Education for Democracy, Democracy for Education,” reflects the preeminent place teacher unionists have always given to democratic citizenship education. We believe that there is a world of difference between such democratic citizenship education and efforts to proselytize students into a particular political or ideological perspective, a practice which we have steadfastly opposed throughout our history. A teacher who engages in political proselytizing, or who treats students differently based on their political views they hold, is a teacher who betrays the trust a democratic society has placed in him or her as an educator of the next generation of citizens.
In breaking with at least a quarter century of its own precedent, the Department of Education announced in this week’s P-Weekly that the First Amendment rights of staff to free political expression should be restricted in schools. “School staff may not wear buttons or apparel in support of a political candidate while in school or during school activities,” principals were told. Further, “the distribution or posting of materials in support of a political candidate in a school building” was prohibited. For as long as I have taught in New York City public schools, through some six presidential elections, four elections for each Senator and twelve elections of members of the House of Representatives, five gubernatorial elections, five mayoral elections and more state and citywide ballot referenda than I can recall, the Board of Education/Department of Education had a very different policy. There was no prohibition of election campaign buttons, and no attempt was made to prevent the UFT from communicating with its members on participation in the electoral process in schools. When educators were at the helm of New York City public schools, they saw no harm, but rather some worthwhile good, in students knowing that their teachers were engaged in the primary right and responsibility of citizenship, participation in the electoral process. Why the DoE chose this moment to establish a new policy limiting free political expression will have to be explained by those who took this unfortunate step, but one thing is clear: those who now occupy Tweed do not understand the fundamental distinction between education into democratic citizenship, modeled by teachers who practice that citizenship, and the inappropriate use of the classroom to proselytize a particular political view or ideology. Their actions can not but have a chilling effect on citizenship education.
It is worth pointing out that, to be consistent here, the DoE would have to prohibit from public schools the numerous newspapers and newsmagazines which are do not simply state a preference for this candidate or that political party, as a political button does, but make as convincing a case as they can that their readers should embrace that same choice. Note that it would be the exceptional school which could afford and provide print media on different sides of an election campaign, especially since the editorial choices of the different publications is not always clear at the outset of a campaign. And remember that many a tabloid journal makes little practical distinction between its editorial stance and its news coverage. But if there is a positive educational purpose in having students read and analyze such media advocacy, in learning how to become a critical consumer of such information, why do we need to protect students from the mere knowledge that a teacher is actively supporting a candidate or a cause? If the DoE would not censor print media during an election campaign, why should it censor such modest political expression as a button on the part of educators?
UFT President Randi Weingarten has made clear that if necessary, the UFT will go to federal court to defend the First Amendment rights of school staff to free political expression in schools. What is at stake is not simply the rights of educators, but a vibrant education into democratic citizenship.