Eubanks: Education Voices are Too Loud for Some Legislators

Going into last November’s elections, educators in Mississippi were hoping for real leadership. Instead, what they got was more of the same. The best example of this is House Education Chair John Moore’s bill to silence educators, which he filed last year and did so again this year. This is a blatant attempt to tell educators, especially superintendents: Keep your mouth shut. Don’t challenge us. This session, a similar one was filed by House Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden. Snowden, as you may remember, was the author of the confusing legislative alternative to Initiative 42.

In comparing the two bills, Moore’s bill is the more onerous of the two, leveling $10,000 fines and revoking teacher licenses. But without any provision for who can file a complaint, or to whom, it appears the Education Chairman’s bill is reactionary and not well thought out. Snowden’s bill, while similar, is not as toxic and more measured. It only has fines of $100 for the first offense and $250 for each further offense, to be investigated by the Secretary of State’s office. Complaints can be filed by “any state or federal oversight, enforcement or regulatory governmental enmity”, which includes those poor, harassed legislators. Both authors claim the bills are not about stifling free speech, but about making sure educators are about the business of educating and not using school time, facilities, or materials for partisan politics. And, honestly, that is a valid point. Teachers should not use class time for anything non-educational related. And of course school materials should be used in an effort to educate students, not for personal or political purposes.

But these bills go well beyond flyers and phone calls. They prohibit “supporting or opposing any political party, philosophy or issue in an election or done to affect the outcome thereof, campaigning on behalf of a specific candidate or issue or lobbying the Legislature for policy change” during “regularly scheduled hours of operation…for the official duties and responsibilities associated with [his or her] position…”. Playing Candy Crush on Facebook at school? Maybe not proper, but legal. Voicing a political opinion on Facebook at school? Illegal and subject to fines.

These bills would also prohibit talking to fellow teachers at lunch, or the playground, or on duty about anything that can be construed as political or policy. Teachers can’t discuss who they’d vote for governor, or why they may oppose a bond issue, or encourage each other to meet with a local legislator about changing state testing. School administrators, found working after school at ball games or other activities, would be prohibited from discussing the latest state standards proposal of the legislature or whether or not funding for students with special needs are appropriate. Likewise, both bills require the school superintendent and school board to be totally neutral publically, except for their own personal campaigns. No longer can board members tell their Sunday school group how much they dislike the President, nor can the superintendent ask voters to support a millage increase for new school buildings. And neither could comment on legislative plans to consolidate their school districts.

Also, both bills prohibit political signs and the solicitation of students and employees to become involved in political activity. Goodbye Teenage Republicans and Democrats, because we don’t need to get young people involved in the political process anyway.

And no one has asked how this affects charter schools, which Moore and Snowden both tout as a form of public schools. Would they fall under this since they accept state funds? Didn’t a group of charter students and faculty members come to the state capital during “normal operating hours” to lobby support for school choice? Moore was quoted as being very enthusiastic with these groups; would he be so if a local school in Rankin County bused a 5th grade class to the capital to push for more school funding?

The truth, and hypocrisy, of the matter is that this isn’t about making sure teachers do their jobs, but about stifling speech that the legislature disagrees with. The reason these bills have been introduced is simple: the campaign to pass Initiative 42 was the most organized educators in Mississippi had been thirty years. And legislators, who often forget they serve at the will of the voters and instead act as if they are members of the aristocracy, were taken aback when educators had the audacity to challenge them on their votes.

And what happened after those teacher strikes thirty years ago? The legislature set out to make sure it didn’t happen again. Several stringent anti-strike provisions were enacted, among these were fines of up to $20,000 a day for any teacher organization found to be in contempt for violating a court injunction against any strike. Any teacher taking part in an illegal strike is to be dismissed and may not be rehired by any public school district in the state unless a court finds the rehiring to be a “public necessity.”

Needless to say, this action had the intended effect as teachers haven’t even sniffed of another strike. The Mississippi Association of Educators, then the largest teacher group in the state, has fallen from a position of power to near irrelevance. And the voice of educators has gone from a shout in the halls of the capital to little more than a whisper.

And even that is too loud for some legislators.

Shannon Eubanks is the principal of Enterprise Attendance Center in Lincoln County.

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