Sunday, January 6, 2013

School employees’ speech should be encouraged more, policed less

Our school district is debating the adoption of a “diversity policy” that would require socioeconomic disparities between school populations in the district to be brought within a relatively narrow range. I hope to post about it soon. In the meantime, I wanted to chime in on the latest sub-controversy: supporters of the diversity policy are up in arms over the fact that a principal at one school sent parents an email, on his school email account, conveying his opinion about the proposed policy, and that administrators at another school sent a letter, on district letterhead, urging parents to express their views on the policy to the school board. (I haven’t seen the email and letter in question, but am assuming, for sake of argument, that those characterizations are true.)

One supporter of the diversity policy, Ed Stone, questioned whether such communications were “appropriate, ethical and legal,” and called on the school board to ask the superintendent to
send a letter to all district principals telling them that it is inappropriate to use district email accounts, district letterheads, and district mailing lists to express any political opinions and that this prohibition includes communications designed to “alert” families to topics currently under consideration by the board and/or suggestions that the recipients contact the board to voice their opinions.
I think those concerns are overblown. Sure, school staff should not spend district money to lobby the public about their own views on policy issues. But I don’t think alerting parents about pending issues and asking them to voice their views crosses that line. And, yes, it would be better if people didn’t use district email accounts to lobby the public, either—but an email costs the district nothing, and anyway the recipients aren’t magically deprived of their power to think for themselves.

Shouldn’t I be concerned about administrators using the school’s “confidential address lists” to promote their views? Maybe I should be, but I’m not. How far would that principle extend? On a daily basis, school principals have in-person access to parents in a way that others don’t have, but does that mean we should muzzle them from expressing their opinions about policy issues when they’re talking to parents on school grounds? Policing employees’ speech in that way, even in the name of fairness, can only end up chilling free expression and making people less informed. When I talk with the staff at my kids’ school, I want to hear what they really think; I’m afraid complaints like Stone’s will make that less likely.

I certainly don’t think district staff feel too free to express their opinions about district policies and practices. (My experience with the district’s behavioral reward program, PBIS, convinced me of the exact opposite.) We should be begging these people—and not just the administrators, but the teachers—to express their opinions about what the district is doing. Again, nobody’s forcing anyone to agree.

If some employees felt free to speak while others feared repercussions, that would be a big problem, and that may actually be true in our district. But the solution isn’t to more closely police how school staff are expressing themselves; it’s to invite everyone—administrators, teachers, and everybody else—to talk freely about their opinions.

Stone says the board should
invite all members of the community to get their information about board activities first hand, or from the newspaper, or from some private citizen who is using his or her own resources to convey his or her own opinion (the cornerstone of our democracy).
I don’t see how inviting people to get their information only in certain approved-of ways is the “cornerstone of democracy.” I wish people would resist the impulse to police and regulate the flow of information and opinion, even when they may technically have valid grounds to do so. Even if it’s a bad idea for employees to use a school email account to express themselves, engaging the substance of what they’re arguing is much more valuable than obsessing over whether they violated a district rule.


Lisa Nielsen said...

In today's climate educators often don't have the right to share their ideas about what is best for children. This is reserved for those with big campaign budgets who believe those with expertise about learning have no place in the conversation.

Chris said...

Lisa -- Thanks for commenting! I'm afraid that people are more and more accepting of the idea that those with more power necessarily know better.