The day before Thanksgiving, third-grade students at the Frank Allis Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, were given a curious lesson in civic responsibility. They were told to write letters to their congressman and various media outlets calling for an end to the war in Iraq.
Parents were sent a letter justifying this political indoctrination as a social studies lesson. “The Frank Allis third grade will be writing letters to encourage an end to the war in Iraq,” the letter explained. “The letter writing will teach civic responsibility, a social studies standard, while providing an authentic opportunity to improve composition skills and handwriting. If the war has not ended by the 12th day [of the letter writing campaign] we will start the whole sequence over again, writing to students in middle school, high school, and college.”
Signed by the “third grade staff,” the letter in closing asked parents to fund ten postage stamps and 12 envelopes for the project. As a “courtesy,” the teacher gave parents the option to opt out of the assignment – as if that excused the school’s attempt to recruit impressionable third-graders into the service of “antiwar” movement and mold their views on the War on Terror.
At first, school administrators saw nothing wrong with the project. School principal Chris Hodge initially signed off on the project after being approached by the third-grade teachers. But when news of the project sparked controversy, Hodge began to back peddle, acknowledging that, on reflection, it may have been in violation of school district policy after all. Nevertheless, she said she wanted to check with administration officials before taking action.
As it happened, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the letter-writing project was indeed in contravention of district policies – several policies to be precise. According to district spokesman Joe Quick, not only did the project run counter to a ban on teacher promotion of their personal political beliefs to students, but it was also in conflict with a policy that requires teachers to address opposing views when presenting controversial topics.
By then concerned politicians had entered the fray. Congressman Mark Green, R-WI, sent a letter to Hodge expressing his dismay with the planned project. “It's a profound misjudgment to use third-grade students as political pawns regardless of the issue,” Green told the Journal Sentinel. “If I received letters from third-grade students saying, ‘Dear Congressman Green, please vote for the war,’ I would be equally as disturbed.”
Those objections did not go unheard. Facing intense pressure from the media as well as private citizens and parents, some of whom have relatives serving in battle, Hodge and the school district finally rescinded the assignment.
Not everyone was pleased with that decision. In the aftermath, Sharon Johnson, Frank Allis Elementary PTA president, said she was disappointed to see that the envelopes and stamps she sent to school with her daughter, as requested in the assignment, were returned last Tuesday. “I got the letter, and I had no objection,” Johnson told the Journal Sentinel. She had hoped that the antiwar project would prove revelatory for her daughter. “Her world is pretty much made up of the Cartoon Network. I thought it was a good idea to get kids to open up their eyes,” she said. But while Johnson, a Democrat, approved of the assignment, she admitted that had the campaign been in support of the war, she would have taken umbrage.
The school refuses to proceed with any project that doesn’t force children into advocating a partisan political position. Congressman Green suggested students instead write letters thanking troops for their service, considering this a non-political cause that would draw broad support. The school has yet to reply to Congressman Green’s proposal. Support the troops? Not at Frank Ellis Elementary.
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