Teachers at Rio are more likely to vote and be registered as Democrats than voters in Sacramento County or the nation at large, but questions remain about the role politics should play in the classroom, if any.
The Mirada checked the voter information of teachers at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters and followed up with interviews of teachers whose names were duplicated or who live outside Sacramento County.
93 percent of teachers voted in the 2008 General Elections and 88 percent voted in the 2010 General Elections. The national turnout rate for those eligible to vote was 61 percent in 2008 and only 37 percent in 2010.
“Teachers are fairly well informed when it comes to the election,” History teacher Rocco Marrongelli said. “Most teachers are also civic minded, so they understand the issues.”
When it comes to the breakdown of political parties among Rio teachers, of the 49 teachers whose voter registration could be confirmed, 32 are registered as Democrats, 8 as Independents, 4 as Republicans, 2 as Libertarians, 1 as Green, and 1 as American Independent.
Percentage wise, 65 percent are registered as Democrats, 16 percent as Independents, 8 percent as Republicans, and 8 percent as members of smaller parties.
The 65 percent registered as Democrats is far greater than the 45 percent in Sacramento County. The 16 percent who are independents compares to 23 for the county. And the 8 percent Republicans is far less than the 31 percent for the county, according to data from the Secretary of State.
Nationally, 44 percent of voters are registered as Democrats, 24 percent as independents, 30 percent as Republicans, and 2 percent as members of smaller parties.
However, teachers may be more aligned with students. Over 60 percent of students voted for President Obama in mock election last week.
(Although voter registration is part of the public record, out of respect for teachers who say they want to keep politics out of the classroom, the Mirada has decided not to print individual party affiliation.)
Many teachers interviewed for this article say that the disproportionate amount of Democrats stems from the fact that teachers are government employees who have chosen a job to benefit society.
“They [Democrats] believe in helping others. However, that’s not to say Republicans don’t feel the same way,” French teacher Alicia Murray said. “ We’re working for the kids, and that’s the most important thing.”
American Government teacher Alisa Armstrong is not surprised that more teachers identify as Democratic then the general population.
“I think teachers tend to be progressive and I think the Democrats represent those progressive values,” Armstrong said. “The teaching profession in general is more concerned with issues Democrats tend to be concerned with.”
But that doesn’t mean teachers all think alike, she said.
“But there’s a huge variety of opinion within any political party. There are some liberal Democrats, some conservative Democrats, and some Democrats in the middle.”
Bucking the trend is Math teacher Darren Miller.
“Being a teacher and being a conservative are not mutually exclusive,” Miller said. “This state has been run by Democrats my entire life. The Democrats have shown no desire to get their financial act together and so if we go bankrupt, everything I’ve worked for is gone. There’d be no retirement. If this state goes belly up, we have nothing. That scares me.”
Miller differs from other teachers in another way. He very openly avows his conservative beliefs and says other teachers should feel free to express their beliefs.
“One shouldn’t put student’s views against them gradewise,” Miller said. “However, it seems silly to ignore the outside world, especially when it relates to class.”
American Government and U.S. History teacher Gary Blenner, who has run for political office himself as a Green Party candidate four times, states that he tries to separate his personal beliefs from his instruction.
“I try to do my best to present all sides and to allow students to express their views in a safe and open environment,” Blenner said. “I present my opinions at times, but I always preface with ‘you are free to disagree with me.’ My role is not to influence thinking.”
“I think our role is to teach material from a neutral position. We shouldn’t be a mouthpiece for a political party. A teacher needs to be fair and give all sides.”
Science teachers may find it hard to remain neutral in the face of politicization of topics such as evolution and global warming. But teachers here say they avoid the politics by sticking to scientific facts.
“Politicians sometimes ignore facts when it doesn’t fit their agendas,” Biology teacher William Begoyan said. “I teach facts which are generally accepted by the scientific community.”
What teachers can say in class is up for debate.
The Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) that “neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
But subsequent court cases have taken a different view on teachers and political statements.
In 2007, a federal appeals court in Chicago upheld the 2003 firing of an Indiana elementary school teacher, who before the start of the Iraq War told her students “I honk for peace.” The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear her appeal.
A teacher’s speech is “the commodity she sells to an employer in exchange for her salary,” the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled. “The Constitution does not enable teachers to present personal views to captive audiences against the instructions of elected officials.”
The case applies directly only to some Midwestern states, but could influence other courts.
Principal Brian Ginter understands that politics may come up between teachers and students, but insists that teachers not let political discussion interfere with their instruction.
“What any employee has to be concerned about is they can’t place beliefs onto students,” Ginter said. “They have to present both sides. Forcing beliefs on someone is not something we’re supposed to do.”
Ginter said that the administration would only be able to act against a teacher imposing their beliefs on a student in the event of a complaint, making it a case by case situation.
“If there’s a complaint made we’d have to talk to that person, classmates, and the teacher. Generally speaking, it’s on a case by case basis.”
Government teacher Blenner agrees about presenting all sides and holding back personal beliefs.
As a candidate he addressed a forum held by the civic learning academy, but would not discuss the campaign with his students.
“Although I spoke before Civitas when I ran for the Board of Supervisors, I didn’t talk about it in class until it was over,” Blenner said. “Outside is different. In class, I’m in a professional role. I didn’t want the impression that I was trying to influence kids to influence their parents to vote for me.”
Math teacher Miller also said he doesn’t force his beliefs on students, but he feels that challenging the prevailing views of things helps students develop critical thinking skills.
Educators “always talk about students developing critical thinking skills,” he said. “I think they want students only to develop those skills about what we want them to be critical about. If you don’t hear multiple opinions how can you think critically about issues?”
Students interviewed for this article said teachers do a good job of keeping politics out of the classroom.
Senior Ramsey Karim agrees, but said bias can slip in. “They’ll never outright advocate for some position unless they’re joking, but teachers certainly can present an issue in a biased light,” he said. “It’s not much of a problem.. [as long as] they still deliver the lesson correctly.”