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Why Politics Matters

This campaign season we have seen an extraordinary surge of first-time voters. Younger citizens, ages 18–29, throughout the nation truly believe that the 2008 presidential contest is a transformative election. The stakes could not be higher.

Casting a ballot is a critical exercise of democratic participation. But voting is the easy part. It should not be the beginning and end of an individual's political activism. For anyone who cares about the direction of the country, engagement in the political process should be a lifetime commitment.

As the newly elected President of the National Education Association, it is one of my priorities to encourage all Association members—especially new educators—to get involved and stay involved in the political process.

Why is this commitment so essential? Because many educators do not realize that the majority of all public policies that affect educators' needs and student learning in their classrooms are formulated by elected officials or political appointees.

Years ago, as a young math teacher attending an Association training session, I was given a handout that listed on the left column various education issues and policies, everything from length of the school day to textbook adoption to compensation. In the right column, I was supposed to fill in who I thought made these decisions. At the time, I really didn't know all the answers and was surprised to learn that for every item on the list, the answer to the question "Who Decides?" was always the same: elected officials or their appointees.

It was at that moment I understood why engagement in the political arena was so critical. It is very clear that our roles as educators and our Association work are hand in hand, one and the same.

What does it mean to be an Association activist? It's about organizing, mobilizing, building relationships, and listening to other educators and parents talk about what local schools and students need. It is also about collective action. We must engage and work with everyone who has a stake in our local schools. This is the only way we can ensure that our members and our students have access to great public schools across the nation.

There will be times when we will call upon you to work with the United States Congress, the state legislature, or your local school board.

At 3.2 million strong, NEA has members in every congressional and legislative district in the United States. Collectively, we have a thunderous voice and the power to force the change we desire for our schools and our students long after the votes are counted in November.

One of my mentors told me that being an educator means that you have to be active, because "you can't do half a job." What you do during the day at school is one half; the other half is being part of the NEA. If you care about the students you teach, if you want to make a difference in their lives, if you want to advocate for what they believe in, you have to go where the decision-makers are.

So this fall, be sure to cast your vote for the candidates of your choice. But don't drop the ball—continue to fight to make sure those leaders deliver on their promises. The slate of issues is long and we need your voice. Your students are depending on you to fight for them.

— NEA president Dennis Van Roekel

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