Friday, April 15, 2011

Allentown Teachers Silenced

Allentown Teacher? (Image by ryumu)
Like virtually every other school district in the country, Allentown is grappling with difficult cuts, including the elimination of 247 teaching positions and 85 courses. Not surprising, at the last school board meeting, board members heard three hours of complaints and criticisms from children, parents, taxpayers and employees, according to the Morning Call. However, the teachers have since been ordered by the board to shut up or face punishment.

Morning Call said that Deputy Superintendent Russ Mayo issued a statement telling employees that they could be disciplined for "making public statements that are inconsistent with district policies and that could serve to harm the effectiveness of district programs."

While clearly an attempt to stifle dissent, legal experts, including the ACLU, have said the mandate violates the First Amendment. As stakeholders in the education system, it is absurd to think that teachers (or parents and students) could be denied the right to express their opinions, including critical ones, at a school board meeting. For example, if the board is debating whether or not to cut pay or benefits, increase class sizes or close down a school, employees should be allowed to express their opinions on how this will affect children’s safety and academic performance, teacher attrition, and the ability to hire and retain excellent teachers. As a parent and a taxpayer, I want to hear what my child’s teachers have to say about matters like these.

Unfortunately, a 2006 Supreme Court ruling seriously curtailed the free speech rights of public employees. In Garcetti v. Ceballos, the justices ruled that public employees must prove that they are speaking as “citizens” and not as “employees” when making public comments about official job duties. This ruling is absurd on several levels, not the least of which because it is impossible to prove that one is speaking purely as a citizen. As soon as I say that I am a teacher or a union organizer speaking as a regular citizen, I have biased everyone who is listening, thus undermining my assertion that my thoughts are coming from the perspective of a citizen. Even if it was possible to prove this, it would be undesirable. The public has a right and a compelling interest in hearing the perspective of an employee. For example, patients want to hear the expert opinions of their doctors, not only about their own health, but sometimes about public health policies, as well. Likewise, if teachers have a good reason to suspect that a reform or policy change will be dangerous or bad for children, most parents will want to hear about it.

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