NC School Officials Use Students to Lobby Against Charter Schools

Published April 28, 2011

Pamela Justice, the principal of Clyde Elementary School in Haywood County in North Carolina, recently sent students home with a letter asking parents to contact their legislators and voice opposition to Senate Bill 8, the “No Cap on Charter Schools” Act.

About the same time, students in Rutherford County Schools used school e-mail accounts to flood lawmakers’ in-boxes with messages urging a no vote on SB 8.??The typical message was lifted liberally (if not copied verbatim) from talking points issued by public-employee groups opposing reforms in public charter schools, including the North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals Association, the North Carolina Association of Educators, the North Carolina School Boards Association, and the Rutherford County Board of Education.

Lobbying During School Hours
Many parents and several legislators called the use of tax-funded resources—and the recruitment of minors—to engage in political activity inappropriate. One constitutional scholar says it may be illegal.

State employees are forbidden from engaging in political activity while they’re on the clock, and they cannot use state resources for political purposes. Teachers and principals are employed by school districts, and their ability to participate in political advocacy while on duty is limited.

The Haywood County letter, printed on school letterhead, begins by calling SB 8 “a direct assault on public education.” It claims the bill would siphon money from traditional public schools, force district schools to share athletic and band booster funds, and allow home schools and private schools to receive public money.

Much of the information in the letter came from the North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals Association, the lobbying group for K-12 public school principals. It asks parents to “join educators in calling for Senate Bill 8 to be stopped” by sharing the messages with family, friends, elected representatives, and the media. They are asked to share their concerns with all members of the House Education Committee and are given the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of their local representatives.

Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry) said she received several hundred e-mails from students, teachers, and parents in Rutherford County. Other than those from parents, the vast majority of the messages were written from school e-mail accounts during hours students normally are in class, she said.

Many of the e-mails repeated the same talking points and what Stevens termed “misinformation.”

Facebook Page Created
Most of the messages may be found on a Facebook fan page called “Stop NC Senate Bill 8.” The Web page has more than 1,000 fans. It was created by Kelli Fisher Wilson, the parent of a first-grader and an eighth-grader in Rutherford County Schools.

The Facebook page provides parents with form letters they can e-mail to their representatives and postcards they can print and mail to the governor. Fisher also includes links to talking points from NCAE, the school boards association, the school administrators group, and the county school board.

The Facebook page also was used to advertise an “information session about school funding and Senate Bill 8” held in East Rutherford High School’s gymnasium March 7. Superintendent Janet Mason and School Board Chairman John Mark Bennett both gave “inspiring speeches” at the meeting, according to one Facebook fan. More than 500 parents attended.

Bennett denied he or Mason encouraged the mass emailing in any way. He said to his knowledge, no one was “directed” to write the emails and teachers and students were responding to SB 8 “of their own volition.”

E-Mails Possibly Illegal
The letter and the e-mails may violate state law, said Jeanette Doran, a senior staff attorney with the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law.

State law says public employees cannot engage in political activity on state time. It also says a state employee may not use the authority of his position, state funds, or state supplies to support or oppose any candidate, party, or issue during an election.

Although K-12 principals and teachers are not state employees, Doran said the statute probably does not allow school employees to use tax-financed resources such as school telephones, computers, email accounts, copiers, paper, stamps, or class time to support or oppose a political issue.

“If the exemption covered everything—even when [teachers] are on duty and even if they were using government resources—there wouldn’t be anything to keep teachers from running a campaign out of their classroom,” Doran said. “I can’t imagine the court would be willing to so broadly interpret the exemption.”

At a minimum, Doran called the principal’s behavior an “egregiously bad idea” and “a practice that should be avoided.”

Haywood County Schools Superintendent Anne Garrett agreed. “It’s in the gray area, and we have made a bad mistake,” Garrett said. She heard about the letter when parents complained about it at a recent school board meeting. She consulted with the school district’s attorney, who said the letter was inappropriate and could get the district in trouble.

‘Captive Audience’
Stevens said it wasn’t fair for teachers to use their podiums as pulpits to influence children on political issues. 

“You only bring children into the debate if you’re going to bring them fully into the debate,” she said. “You’ve got a captive audience during the day. You should set up a meeting after school hours, in a neutral, public place, and you invite people to present both sides.”

Sara Burrows ([email protected]) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal, published by the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, NC, where a version of this article first appeared. Reprinted by permission.