An apple from the teachers

I live in Takoma Park, Maryland, a.k.a. "The People's Republic." An inner-suburb adjacent to the District of Columbia, it's generally known to be to the left of Berkeley, Madison, and Ann Arbor. In the 1980s, our town was home to a communist mayor. Even our local pet food store is organic.

Not surprisingly, the big local elections around here are the Democratic primaries; the general election is not much more than a coronation. (There's not even a Republican candidate in the race for the state senate seat in my district.)

And what a big election September's primary was. Voter turnout around here must top 90 percent; maybe four-fifths of the houses had campaign signs on their lawn. (Actually, "lawn" isn't quite accurate--more like "yards with collections of non-invasive species that thrive without fertilizer, water or other environmentally-draining ingredients.") And not just one campaign sign per house--the average was probably five or six. Takoma Park residents hold strong views and want their neighbors to know what they are.

Primary day came and went, and soon most of the campaign signs disappeared like summer's humidity. Those that remained were for victorious candidates, headed to their November romps.

And as I biked to work the other day (driving is frowned upon) I noticed that most of the still-standing signs had something in common: a sticker in the shape of a big red apple with thick, friendly letters spelling "Teacher recommended."

I stopped at one sign and took a closer look. Sure enough, in tiny, tiny type, were the words "Endorsed by the Montgomery County Education Association."

Brilliant! Who wouldn't want to be "teacher recommended" with a big red apple? It sends all the right warm, cozy messages: teachers are good, teachers are smart, teachers can be trusted, therefore this candidate is trustworthy. It's like saying "grandma recommended" or "Oprah recommended" or "Sesame Street recommended." And it apparently worked--most of the "teacher recommended" candidates won the primary.

Meanwhile, across the border in D.C., the union made the mistake of labeling its campaign stickers with these words in big block letters: "Endorsed by the Washington Teachers Union." Due to recent local scandals, that's akin to saying: "This guy's in bed with a bunch of crooks." Many of its preferred candidates lost their primaries.

What's so smart about Montgomery County's union is that it understands that voters really like teachers but don't necessarily like teachers unions. So use a time-honored election-season tactic: obscure the truth!

To be fair, Takoma Park voters probably don't have a problem with the policy aims of the teachers union. But the general statewide electorate might. So Martin O'Malley, Baltimore's mayor and the Democratic candidate for governor, is smart to say in his TV ads that he is "Endorsed by Maryland's teachers" instead of "Endorsed by Maryland's teachers union."

Education reformers could learn a few lessons. If unions can own the phrase "teacher recommended," why couldn't reformers own "parent recommended"? The sticker could be a big gold star with these words and a picture of smiling children. It would go to candidates who support parental choice in education and who insist on providing families with lots of data about school results.

Voters might face cognitive dissonance--why do I have to choose between teachers and parents?--but would have vastly more information with which to make a decision.

It's just an idea. I'm sure others are thinking along the same lines; the next campaign cycle will probably see stickers with "firefighter recommended" and "cop recommended" and "mail man recommended." Pretty soon you won't be able to read the name of the candidate on the campaign sign, there will be so many stickers. But parents deserve a sticker--and a voice--too.

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