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Is politics a proper subject for schools?

November 4, 2012 12:10 am



There's a national debate brewing about the election. And it's not over abortion, health care or gay marriage.

Instead, it's about whether teachers can mention those hot-button topics in class or disclose a preference for one candidate over another.

"That's what teachers face throughout the commonwealth, throughout the country, wondering 'What can I say?'" said Tom Coen, a government teacher at Brooke Point High School in Stafford County.

In some schools, parents complain if a teacher asks students to query their parents' voting habits or if an elected official is a guest speaker in the classroom, Coen said. So, many educators spend election season biting their tongue, trying to balance a perceived need for discretion with a desire to teach students about the issues facing voters.

Coen serves on the state commission for civics education and said that the group has been trying for more than six years to create guidelines on handling politics in the classroom.

But it's hard to find the delicate balance between teaching students and pushing political agendas, he said.

Virginia educators aren't the only ones struggling to reach a consensus.

"There's a very lively debate and a mix of practices," said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

Some say teachers should carefully hide any hint of political leanings, while others urge educators to disclose party affiliations.

Teachers generally hesitate to bring politics into the classroom because they don't want to be accused of influencing students' beliefs.

Yet "the fear of indoctrination is way overblown and is getting in the way of having discussions about current events in the schools," said Levine, who wrote "The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens."

Coen doesn't have to decide if he should disclose his leanings: As a candidate for county supervisor, his conservative politics were printed in the newspaper.

Still, he tries to keep classroom discussions focused on the issues--not the parties or the candidates.

Each year, Coen said, he teaches about elections by having students create their own political parties, organize conventions and solicit donations.

And unlike those who shy away from controversial issues like gay marriage and abortion, Coen said he encourages students to debate hot topics.

"I think it's important that they see you can discuss these issues without the animosity and the yelling and screaming you see on cable television," he said.

Students who learn about current events in school could change the tone of national discourse, Levine said, by learning how to disagree with each other respectfully.

"Civics education could be an antidote, a partial antidote because it's not going to solve everything, but it could help," Levine said.

But current events have been fading from classroom discussions since the 1970s, he said. Virginia is one of only two states requiring students to pass a civics test for graduation.

Yet civics education is needed more than ever, Levine said, citing research that shows that students who learn about current events are more likely to be politically active, yet civil.

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973

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