Thursday, February 12, 2015

Are Parents Rights Political? Should Public Schools Prevent Parental Rights Notification?

Recently, a teacher friend of mine took it upon herself to create a booklet out of the Parents Bill of Rights (posted here on the United Opt Out website - thank you Nikki Jones, Oklahoma Coordinator) passed last year into law due in large part to Oklahoma Coordinator Tracey Montgomery

So excited was she to impart this information to fellow teachers, staff and parents, she took them to school and began to pass them out. Not long afterward, her principal pulled her out of class, told her it was illegal to pass out the booklets and that she was to stop. 

My teacher friend knew this to be an incorrect interpretation of statute, so she asked her principal to cite the law and provide it to her in writing. That evening she received the following email: 
It has come to my attention that you are distributing political information to other teachers.  A complaint was made.  Please stop distributing the material immediately.  The OKCPS AFT Collective Bargaining Agreement states:
Article XII – Political Activity
Section 1:  Teachers’ political activities shall be individual and personal, and the involvement of teachers in any political activities shall be at the sole discretion of the individual teachers.

Section 2:  Teachers’ political activities shall in no way interfere with their obligations or assigned duties during their workday and shall not in any manner be injected into the educational programs of the District.

Section 3:  No action shall be taken with respect to a teacher’s political activities except in the case of a violation of this article.

Refrain from involving other staff members in any political activity that you are personally involved.
Is there anything in this email that refers to handing out a booklet of LAW covering the rights of parents? No. In fact, this email doesn't say that handing out information regarding a state law is illegal. A state law is NOT political. Political activities refer to such things as campaigning, lobbying and/or voting. The Parents Bill of Rights is a law - my teacher friend wasn't lobbying for the bill - it passed last year - nor was she trying to build a campaign for public office or get anyone to vote for the bill - again, it's a LAW.

I had another friend of mine search Oklahoma Statutes to see if this teacher was in violation of any school code (210:20-29-3. Principle I: Commitment to the students and 210:20-29-4. Principle II: Commitment to the profession). We were unable to find anything that would pertain to passing out a law detailing parents rights to parents, teachers and staff at a public school - where, incidentally, many of these rights exist. 

Looking for further information on the topic of "free speech and public schools" I found a document from the Center for Public Education. It says,
Over the years the courts have ruled that school employees are not always free to express their opinions and beliefs. Employees cannot be disciplined or suffer negative consequences for speaking out on matters of “public concern.” Schools can take action, however, when employees go public with strictly personal concerns.
The main U.S. Supreme Court case is Pickering v. Board of Education, which held that freedom of speech—while not absolute—gives employees Constitutional protection if they are speaking about issues of a public nature, rather than those things about which they have a personal stake. Pickering overturned a school district’s decision to fire a teacher for commenting on school expenditures through letters in a local newspaper.
Certainly, providing parents with a law concerning their rights would be considered a matter of "public concern". 

This certainly is a head-scratcher. Why would a public school administration not want parents and staff to have access to information that could only help parents understand their rights and responsibilities!? 

Sadly, we've found over the years as parents have sent us their concerns/complaints about their school/teacher/principal, that school administrators often either don't know the rights of parents, or misrepresent the rights of parents to the point that parents come away with the idea that school officials have more control over the student (child) than the parent. 

It seems a no-brainer that school officials would WANT parents to know their rights - including the rights they have over their child's education within the confines of the school community - but to be fair, schools are more often attuned to the rights of the student than the parent, so maybe there simply isn't enough training in this area and the principal's ignorance on the topic caused confusion.

In the end, I would hope all Oklahomans could agree that a booklet created to enlighten parents, school officials and others about the rights of parents would be a supported activity, not one deserving of formal reprimand.