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When Legislators Attempt to Stifle Teacher Voice

capitol buildingAlthough many teachers are now finding their voices and using them to testify at hearings, meet with legislators, or influence policy, this year, there were some disturbing trends throughout the United States that worked to prevent educators from using their experience in the classroom or as a representative of other educators to speak out.

In her policy analyst report this past January, Sherry Swain, NCTE’s P–12 policy analyst for Mississippi, wrote about the attempt by Mississippi legislators to prevent school employees from engaging with legislators about legislative policy. Had HB 449 passed, it would have prohibited “school district personnel from . . . lobbying the Legislature for policy change . . . while in performance of official duties and responsibilities” or on school property. A first offense would be a misdemeanor subject to a $10,000 fine; a second offense would also be subject to a $10,000 fine and loss of license and certification. According to the Parents’ Campaign, a nonprofit organization in Mississippi, the bill would silence teachers because the legislature only meets during the school day, and even if a legislator visits the school, according to the language of the bill, teachers would be prevented from speaking to them on school property.

Arizona legislators filed a similar bill, S.B. 1172, which had it passed, would have said that “an employee of a school district or charter school who is acting as an agent of or working in an official capacity for the school district or charter school may not . . . distribute written OR ELECTRONIC materials . . . to advocate support for or opposition to pending or proposed legislation. A floor amendment to the bill would have fined a school employee who did speak out about pending legislation $5,000. One could argue that even a tweet posted from a personal smart phone during one’s lunch hour in the classroom could violate this law.

According to Heidi Vega, a spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, “This bill is basically putting a gag order on school officials when it comes to providing any kind of information that is factual to stakeholders. . . . We wouldn’t be able to provide information on what programs would be cut.” In her March post, Carissa Morrison, NCTE’s Arizona P–12 policy analyst, referenced the public letter signed by 233 Arizona school superintendents urging the legislature to resist the governor’s proposed budget cuts.

North Carolina Senate Bill 480, had it passed, would have prevented employees of boards of education from using “public funds . . . to engage in advocating for or against issues of local, State, or federal policy.” Nor could such employees “encourage student advocacy for or against issues of local, State or federal policy.” Those concerned about this bill include English and civics teachers who assign students projects to learn about issues in their communities and write to elected officials about their thoughts and solutions. Or in the case of the Student Advisory Committee of St. Vrain Valley Schools in Longmont, Colorado, educators would not be able to discuss important issues with students and obtain student input.

Kansas House Bill 2234, had it passed, would have prevented employees of state colleges or universities from using their office title when writing opinion pieces or letters to the editor.

Although none of the above-referenced bills passed, the fact that legislators attempted to prevent educators from speaking out about policies that impact their schools and students is worrisome. And those efforts are probably not over.

We will continue to monitor efforts to stifle teacher voice.