Button-Free Zone

Students should not have to feel alienated by a teacher’s ideology

Republicans, Democrats, and all those in between pay taxes—their children should not be forced to attend public schools where only certain political beliefs are encouraged. Consequently, we support the Manhattan Federal District Court’s recent ruling in favor of a New York City policy prohibiting public school teachers from wearing political paraphernalia in the classroom.

Teachers, like all other citizens, reserve the right to freedom of speech and expression. However, this liberty does not justify any behavior in the classroom, especially if it comes at the expense of students’ best interests. Just like employees in any other sector, teachers are held to certain standards of conduct: A teacher cannot spend science classes expounding on the merits of creationism or turn a history period into an advertisement for Scientology while hiding behind the shield of free speech.

Similarly, a teacher should not be permitted to create a classroom climate that alienates certain students. While political buttons can be characterized as a benign form of self-identification, they also are inherently elements of proselytization. Buttons, which are primarily created by political campaigns for the purpose of rallying supporters, are designed to be seen and to elicit a specific response in others. This is particularly obvious with buttons containing imperative statements like “Vote McCain” or more subtle statements like “Change We Can Believe In.” But even buttons that carry nothing more than a candidate’s name send a clear message: “I hold a certain set of political beliefs and you should, too.” When they adorn the clothing of teachers—who occupy positions of nearly unparalleled authority and influence in the lives of young students—this effect is particularly powerful. It seems extremely likely that members of a political minority would feel uncomfortable expressing their views in a classroom controlled by a teacher who, quite literally, wears her politics on her sleeve.

It is in the pedagogical interest of our schools to have classrooms stay places where all students and ideas are tolerated. While banning buttons and posters will not bring an end to teacher bias, prohibiting teachers from dictating the political tenor of a class in this singularly blatant way is an important part of promoting a culture of neutrality.

This does not mean that public schools should be places devoid of dialogue and debate. Rather, educational institutions should do their best to foster discussion of important and topical themes, and the absence of political paraphernalia on teachers is a crucial part of creating genuine engagement with civic issues in the classroom.

The provision of public services should never be accompanied by partisan political messages, especially when those involved are young, impressionable children. A politically neutral classroom is an essential component of preserving the distinction between education and indoctrination, and is crucial in allowing students to enjoy real intellectual and political development.