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A Political Enigma

Today, Tuesday, November 6, was Election Day and since our schools are also our polling places, there were no classes. For about three weeks we’ve been courted with full color glossy mail pieces and inundated with recorded phone messages. Every night candidates, with their children or grandchildren in their arms and the family dog at their side, smile benignly from the TV screen. They promise that they understand my concerns and their interest in my welfare is sincere. You will be encouraged to know that every candidate has assured me and my fellow voters that Education is a top priority.

I vote at the elementary school my own children attended. It was raining, and voter turnout is usually low in years with no national or gubernatorial elections, so I was pleasantly surprised to find there was a line. It was nice to see colleagues, neighbors, parents of students, and even a former student who was voting in her first election. Candidates and poll sitters were waiting to ask for my vote or hand me campaign material. “Would you like a sample ballot?” they asked.

And I wondered: Can a voter who needs learning supports to complete a ballot fully grasp the complexity of choosing elected representation? After all, the ballot contains only multiple choice questions and those only assess citizenship and lower level thinking skills. And I wondered which of my friends and neighbors waited until they were heading into the voting booth to choose a candidate, as if they were selecting somewhat randomly from a Whitman’s Sampler box of chocolates? “Hi, can I offer you some information about John Doe, candidate for Senator? He’s the soft-center right there in the middle.”

This morning I walked the gauntlet of placards, supporters, information tables, and candidates. I smiled, waved, and noncommittally responded to each plea or question with, “Thank you so much! I’ve already made all my voting decisions.” I’m good at smiling and looking sincere (sort of like a candidate) so I wondered how many of them mistakenly thought I was going in to vote for “their” side.

On Election Day I understand why some colleagues say they don’t want to teach in the community where they live because the responsibility of supporting my political perspective comes at the price of sacrificing my anonymity. For years I have prided myself on being a political enigma. “Is she a conservative liberal or is she a liberal conservative?” Most of my students, their parents, my neighbors and colleagues are not sure. As a teacher I feel I walk a fine professional line that requires me to examine whether expressing a partisan preference might impact my credibility in the classroom or at the education policy table. Maybe I’m paranoid, but it seems that educators, because they not only are public employees, but also have access to impressionable young people, are held to a higher standard of impartiality. Maybe that’s a cop-out.

Maybe I ought to be more outspoken because, not surprisingly, education is my number one political priority and all the candidates expressed their deep concern about education issues. But I have noticed that when politicians speak about the importance of education, the conversation avoids specifics and diffuses into a vague sort of feel-good about the children being our future and the candidate’s intention to get (if a challenger) or keep (if an incumbent) education on track.

Here’s hoping that once the votes are all counted the folks who will actually represent me will take time to ask teachers for their input on how to fix or maintain good public education. You know--- the same way they ask builders to help assess the impact of land development, or lawyers about the efficacy of legislation on deeds and wills. Like many of you, I’m an expert on public education and I could offer a lot of valuable input. Because I understand that every education decision begins as a political decision, I’m serious about choosing our elected representatives, and I’m eager to be of help, regardless of party affiliation.

It’s almost midnight and the state senate race in my district is neck and neck, so for now my choice will remain between me and my ballot. Tomorrow, I plan contact my new senator and offer my services as a constituent with education expertise. Is it naïve to believe that policymakers really want to hear a balanced voice? Maybe. Maybe not.

I’ll let you know.

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