Thursday, October 2, 2008

An e-mail distributed by a Virginia teachers union encouraged members to bring politics into the classroom by wearing blue in support of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and simultaneously suggested that the union’s voter registration efforts include those “you teach.”

The Virginia Education Association (VEA) e-mail drew strong criticism Wednesday from elected Republican officials and some residents after the state Republican Party obtained a copy. The author of the e-mail conceded Wednesday that the e-mail should have been worded differently.

The VEA is an affiliate of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union.

“Schools should be perfectly neutral,” Virginia resident Julie Aurora said Wednesday. “They should teach students how to think, not what to think.”

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The e-mail said teachers should wear blue Tuesday for “Obama Blue Day” and to “register two voters or talk to two people who may be on the fence/or a McCain supporter and sway them to become a Obama supporter.”

The e-mail also states: “There are people out there not yet registered. You teach some of them.”

Delegate Jeffrey M. Frederick, Prince William Republican and chairman of the state party, said: “It is an outrageous breach of public trust and an abuse of taxpayer resources that teachers chose to use school grounds as a political base.”

Mr. Frederick said the words “you teach some of them” suggest that the e-mail was meant to encourage teachers to recruit their students, not just ordinary residents, into the Obama camp.

“That is patently wrong and it should be illegal if it not already is,” he said.

VEA President Kitty Boitnott said the charges are baseless and that the e-mail does not suggest teachers rally support for Mr. Obama, Illinois Democrat, from students.

“It’s a ridiculous statement,” said Mrs. Boitnott, a librarian at Chamberlayne Elementary School in Henrico County.

It was “certainly not the author’s intent” to encourage teachers to recruit students for Mr. Obama, she also said. The reference to students stems from the union’s long-standing, nonpartisan youth-registration efforts, she said.

She told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that participation in Tuesday’s Obama Blue Day was “miserable” and that she herself had forgotten and worn red — the color representing Republicans.

Dorris Boitnott, a VEA member and author of the e-mail, said that in hindsight she should not have paired the idea of supporting Mr. Obama with that of registering young voters. Mrs. Boitnott, who said she is not related to Kitty Boitnott, also said she had no intention of encouraging teachers to recruit students into a political campaign.

She pointed out that the e-mail discourages teachers from wearing T-shirts or campaign buttons in the classroom that specifically name Mr. Obama.

“Teachers know they are not allowed to partake in partisan activities during school hours, and so if this e-mail somehow looks like it does encourage teachers to recruit students, then I’m very sorry,” she said.

The NEA voted in June to endorse Mr. Obama. The recommendation is based solely on a candidate’s position on education-related issues, Kitty Boitnott said.

“This e-mail was in the spirit of that recommendation, to give resources and advice to those VEA members who are already energized about the Obama campaign,” she said. “We do not advise that any teacher actively recruit a student to any particular political campaign during school hours.”

Mr. Frederick disagreed.

“The Virginia Education Association has systematically brought election politics into the classroom, and this is not the first time they have done so,” he said. “The political views of teachers have no place in the classroom or on school grounds.”

J. Tucker Martin, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, called the e-mail “highly inappropriate.”

“One-sided, partisan political advocacy should stay out of the classroom,” he said.

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