Politics in School: Differing Ideologies in Apolitical Settings

A sign in a classroom window promotes social equality. As political tensions grow, parents voice concerns over what opinions teachers should and shouldn’t express.
Photo by Perry Overby

With the increasing presence of politics in everyday life, it has become difficult, if not impossible, to keep schools and teachers apolitical. With issues such as gun violence becoming extremely politicized, the question has to be addressed: when, if ever, should teachers be vocal about their political views and opinions? Just how much is too much for teachers to vocalize? When living in a city as liberal as Portland, conservative parents worry about the liberal rhetoric in schools, and if their children are being taught to have opinions that differ politically from their own. An example of this frustration is a letter that was written to the editor of The Oregonian by Michele Beckler, the wife of a teacher in Southeast Portland. Beckler speaks of her fears in her letter with quotes such as, “What’s going on with our schools? When did reading, writing, history, and math get shoved out of our schools in favor of How to Hate Yourself for Being White 302… Teachers are no longer encouraged to teach their subjects, but are encouraged to teach students how to transition from male to female and vice versa.”

Because teachers in Portland Public Schools are public employees, they must abide by state laws regarding restrictions on political activity. According to resources cited in the PPS employee handbook, teachers are prohibited from promoting or opposing election petitions, candidates, political committees, or ballot measures. This means that while teachers can use personal time to participate in political campaigns, they cannot use school time to participate in or promote specific political causes. PPS teachers are expected to remain neutral on political issues. According to district recommendations after the Parkland shooting, there should even be limits on discussing mass shootings in high schools because it could be too much to handle for the students and is politically divisive. At some point there has to be a line between remaining neutral and keeping students safe. Franklin economics and business teacher Tim Biamont, says, “I think we should treat [high school] students as young adults because that’s what they are, and with that they will have to hear difficult topics of conversation and process difficult things.” Adults tend not to see children as political participants and therefore fail to include them in the political sphere. Students are often excluded from conversations about things that directly affect them. There is no reason to leave students out of this conversation as they enter the world of voting and politics in a few short years. Nearly everything in this country is intertwined with politics, and therefore it seems impractical for teachers to be asked to completely avoid all political conversations.

“I personally try to be very neutral, but probably the hardest thing for a teacher is to separate your personal feelings from your job, you have to be so careful,” says Biamont. For teachers who decide to voice their opinions, there can be harsh consequences. In Alexandria, Virginia in 2017, the entire school district was shut down due to a teacher-organized walk out to support “a day without women,” and in 2016 a teacher from California compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler and was suspended, eventually resigning due to the incident.

Although the line between moral and political issues continues to be blurred, students continue to push for the ability to have their voices heard. This is apparent in places such as Parkland, where students are expressing their opinions and demanding that adults across the country listen to what they have to say. As this new generation of students begins to reach maturity, it may become necessary for public employee laws to be reevaluated in the interest of keeping our younger generation safe. The safety of students— whether it’s physical or emotional—should be more important than any law to keep staff neutral and maintain an apolitical stance.

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