Education advocacy group calls for investigation into ‘letters to Pence’

NEW CASTLE, Ind. (Feb. 25, 2015)– Stand for Children Indiana, an education advocacy group, has requested that Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) officials investigate letters that were sent to members of the Board of Education and legislators. Some believe educators in a New Castle school encouraged the children to write politically motivated letters on school time.

The IDOE tells FOX59 that it would not be up to them to investigate. Rather, it would be up to the local school district to handle the investigation.

The request for an investigation comes after students at Wilbur Wright Elementary emailed letters to state officials.  Stand for Children Indiana says the letters used “political rhetoric that reads more like campaign talking points than authentic content from a legitimate civics lesson.”

The teacher, Mary Jane Dye stated in the e-mail with the letters:

“I am forwarding essays my students wrote about their educational experience and thoughts regarding reform in Indiana.  These were not coached….students did research in the computer lab and at home and wrote the essays in class.”

The group says some letters referred to Gov. Mike Pence as a “dictator” for supporting a bill that would allow the Board of Education to elect its own chair rather than have the State Superintendent of Public Instruction automatically seated as chair.

“The public deserves to know whether any political or partisan actor played a role in encouraging or manipulating students to lobby state leaders on school time,” said Stand Indiana Executive Director Justin Ohlemiller. “Political debate in the halls of the Statehouse is absolutely acceptable, but if politics has entered our classroom and children are being used as political pawns, then that’s outrageous and should never ever happen.”

Ohlemiller pointed to several quotes from the letters:

“Glenda Ritz should be the one who has the power to control what goes on in Indiana public schools, not the government. Government, let Glenda Ritz do her job. … And government, why are you trying to overthrow Glenda while Tony Bennett was the real problem for Indiana public schools.”

“People are taking away Glenda Ritz’s power and we must not let that happen,” writes another.  “1.3 million people voted for Glenda Ritz. That’s more votes than the governor received.”

School Board Member Sarah O’Brien is also a teacher and mother of young students. She says the letters cross the line of being appropriate in the classroom setting.

“Every minute of instructional time is precious and we want to make sure it’s used on target, making sure our students have the expectations and standards that curriculum would provide,” O’Brien said. “I don’t feel that the tone of the letters was necessarily appropriate. I don’t know that I’d be thrilled with my child expressing myself in that way especially in an elementary school setting.”

The Indiana State Teachers Association says the teacher is not a member of the association, so they do not have a position on the situation, but they advise teachers to follow school policy.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the Indiana Board of Education say they do not have a comment at this time.

Kara Brooks, from Gov. Pence’s office, issued the following statement:

“Governor Pence believe there’s no place for politics in the classroom. This is a local school matter and the Governor has every confidence that it will be handled in a way that puts kids and their education first.”

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