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Fremont Mayor’s Campaign Apparently Violated State Education Law By Recruiting Students at Schools

6 November 2008 No Comment

High School Junior Andrea Shyu did not even know who the mayor of Fremont was before signing up to volunteer for his re-election campaign. Now, the 16-year-old spends up to eight hours a week canvassing door-to-door and putting up lawn signs.

Shirley Fok, 16, and Harshil Kanakia, 19, go door-to-door as part of Mayor Wasserman's campaign internship program.

Shirley Fok, 16, and Harshil Kanakia, 19, go door-to-door as part of Mayor Wasserman

Shyu is one of 130 students Mayor Bob Wasserman’s campaign recruited from high school classrooms and at school activities fairs. The campaign offered students like Shyu community service credit, an “intern” title for their resumes and college recommendation letters. While this all seemed like simply offering students campaign experience and activities for college applications, legal scholars say the recruitment actually violated state education law.

Soliciting students on school grounds for partisan purposes violates section 51520 of the California Education Code, according to Professor Lois Schwartz of U.C. Hastings College of Law.

“Looks like the Mayor really made a booboo here,” Schwartz said.

Wasserman’s campaign said the mayor was too busy to comment, but spokesman Mitchell Lester said: “Obviously, we had no idea” the on campus recruitment broke the law, adding the principals at the schools cleared the campaign to talk to students.

Approval from principals or even the school board would not satisfy the education code, according to Schwartz.

Two high schools, American and Kennedy, did not allow the campus recruitment, according to campaign officials.

Councilmember Steve Cho, one of Wasserman’s two opponents in the election, said when he ran for City Council in 2000 and 2004, he was advised that recruiting students on campus violated school policy. Because of this, Cho said he did not recruit students on campus in this or previous elections.

The third mayoral candidate, Gus Morrison, said he has no student volunteers.

Fontaine Ma, 16, phonebanks at Wasserman campaign headquarters.

Fontaine Ma, 16, phonebanks at Wasserman campaign headquarters.

According to interviews with students, teachers, and the campaign’s Field Director, Altin Dastmalchi, the campaign staff recruited students in classrooms and orientations by promising college recommendation letters from the mayor himself, in addition to service learning credit, an “internship” program for resumes, and an opportunity to learn about local elections. They asked students to commit four hours a week to phonebanking, door-to-door outreach, and other work like putting up lawn signs and preparing mailers.

“This has been a great program,” said Spokersperson Lester. “It is designed to bring students in to learn more about public service and campaigns.”

While education and legal experts interviewed stressed the importance of encouraging student involvement in politics, some teachers and educators expressed concern that the campaign’s encroachment into classrooms and the promise of recommendation letters was inappropriate.

“I like the kids to get involved in political life,” said Kennedy High School social science teacher Jerry Lapiroff, who did not allow the recruiters in his class, “but I hate to see them possibly working as mercenaries without really having been able to check out the issues in the campaigns and decide who they really wanted to support.”

Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Education, said teachers are often rightly eager to provide opportunities for students, but the school must actively pursue and provide a range of ideas — or, in this case, candidates — from which students can choose.

When one person recruits in a classroom, where students must attend, Syer-Ochi said “the authority that is invested in the teacher and class gets transferred to the presenter,” even if the teacher says the opportunity is optional.

If a classroom visitor fits with the pedagogical goals of the class, at a time that is appropriate in the curriculum, and with the other candidates presenting as well, Seyer-Ochi said having campaign visits in the classroom could be appropriate.

“That’s a really high bar for educators to train young people to be active decisions makers on their own,” she acknowledged.

Wassserman said that while he believed the campaign had to be “careful” about not seeming to coerce the students, he did not believe the schools had any obligation to notify the other candidates.

Government and Economics Teacher Roxanne Ponsi said she and her colleagues at Mission San Jose High School allowed the recruiters into the classroom because the campaign staff was not talking about issues. “It was more about seeing how a campaign works,” she said.

Legally, according the Professor Schartz, the opposite is true. “There is nothing saying the candidate can’t come on campus and speak as long as they have administration approval,” she said. “It’s the solicitation of the kids to help out on the campaign that really causes the problem.”

After visiting the classrooms, the mayor’s campaign required students to fill out a brief application and attend an information session about the basics of campaigning, students and Dastmalchi said. At most of the information sessions, the mayor spoke briefly about his policy positions.

Dastmalchi said he thought the internship provided a good opportunity for students to be politically involved before they could even vote.

Taking a break from phonebanking at campaign headquarters two weeks ago, Fontaine Ma, 16, said the recruiter told her the internship would be good for a college recommendation and would fulfill the mandatory 40-hour service requirement that all high school students must complete. Junior Shyu said promise of a recommendation letter from the mayor attracted most of her fellow students to the campaign.

Wasserman said before signing any letters, he would check with the campaign’s field director to make sure the students did a good job.

The Wasserman’s campaign offer of letters of recommendation in exchange for campaign help was not illegal, according to Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies and former general counsel for the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Despite initially signing up with internship credit on the mind, student Shyu said she has enjoyed learning more about the Mayor and the city more broadly. Though Shirley Fok, 16, did not find many Wasserman supporters on her first day going canvassing door-to-door, she said she liked getting to walk around the neighborhood and talk to people.

Professor Seyer-Ochi stressed the importance of developing dynamic learning experiences outside of the classroom.

“This has the possibility to be really good and build-up longer term relations about local politics, government classes, and internship possibilities,” she said, “but that needs to be done in the contexts that are meaning and right.”

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