Cover Story: It's Your Move
Some politicians do care about public education and retirees. How will you help them win this year’s elections?
By Kristen Loschert
Ah, retirement: After years of devoted service in the public schools you finally can enjoy the fruits of your working life—a solid pension, comprehensive health insurance, Social Security payments.
But wait, what’s that you say? With rising food and gas costs your pension payment no longer covers your living expenses? And you haven’t seen a cost-of-living adjustment since you retired?
Well, thank goodness you have Social Security to make up the difference. Oh, that’s right, you can’t collect Social Security if your state pension disqualifies you from the program.
At least you have the health insurance, right? Never mind that your insurance premiums keep rising, along with the cost of your prescriptions.
With all this weight on your shoulders, retirement might not be the stress-free era you imagined it would be.
Fortunately, you have the power to create the kind of retirement you deserve by volunteering in the political process.
“By being politically active you are a part of the system,” says Agnes Chavis, a retired elementary school teacher in North Carolina. “If you don’t vote, get involved, or become a part of the process, you don’t have a right to criticize.”
Jim Sproul, a retired music teacher in Kentucky, agrees. “In many states your pension, your salaries, are determined by the politicians. If the politicians don’t see that you’re involved, active, and determined about what you want, then they will ignore you.”
And that goes for getting out the education vote, too. Across the country, retired educators have become indispensable members of local, state, and national political campaigns and advocacy movements.
Through years of service you have collected valuable knowledge about the issues that really matter in education—adequate funding, manageable class sizes, support for teachers and education support professionals, and fair salaries and working conditions. Now, as retirees, you are devoting your time and talents to act on those issues and the freedom to speak out about them.
“Retirees have a big advantage over former colleagues still in active service. They are less vulnerable and can express themselves politically without fear of retaliation,” says retired college professor Nelson Norman. “They are an informed group and their expertise should not go to waste.”
Read on to see how Norman, and others like him, have put their expertise to work and how you can join them. And check out NEA’s Education Votes Web site at http://educationvotes.nea.org/.
El Cajon, California
Year Retired: 1988
Years of service: 44 years as a college and high school history teacher
HOW HE FIRST GOT INVOLVED: Norman learned the importance of political activism from his Republican parents, who made sure he cast his absentee ballots “the right way” in state and national elections. After college, he shifted his support primarily to Democratic candidates.
But Norman never has considered himself a strict party-line voter. He credits his experience on his high school and college debate teams for helping him understand “there are two or more sides to every question,” he says.
That philosophy carried into his teaching career, especially at Fresno State University where he advised the university’s Young Democrats club and regularly addressed the Young Republicans’ group too.
Norman also took his activism into the community. During the 1956 presidential election, Norman volunteered on C. Estes Kefauver’s campaign for the Democratic nomination, providing on-site support during the candidate’s public appearances.
WHAT HE’S DOING NOW: At age 90, Nelson admits he no longer “pounds the bricks, ringing doorbells” advocating for the causes and candidates he supports. Instead he shares his political views with more than 100 friends and colleagues, of both political parties, through a weekly e-mail newsletter he has written since 1997.
WHAT MATTERS MOST TO HIM: Health care reform, immigration policy, and the economy top Norman’s list of crucial political issues. But, he believes politicians should focus less on individual issues and more on serving all of their constituents.
Pembroke, North Carolina
Year Retired: 1990
Years of service: 40 years as an elementary and adult education teacher
HOW SHE GETS ACTIVE: As a campaign manager, Chavis helped a local candidate become the first American Indian elected to serve as a circuit court judge in Robeson County.
Chavis also spent the last two years on the government relations committee for the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE). As a committee member Chavis interviewed political candidates and developed recommendations for NCAE members about which candidates to support in state and national elections.
WHAT MATTERS MOST TO HER: “Health care reform is very important to me,” Chavis says. “We have so many people in my county who don’t have health insurance.”
WHAT SHE WANTS YOU TO KNOW: “A lot of people say they don’t want to be involved in anything after they retire. They just want to relax,” says Chavis. “I want to say to them, ‘Do you appreciate the cost-of-living benefits we get? Do you enjoy the health care we have?’ If we weren’t involved we wouldn’t have all that we have.”
Bernalillo, New Mexico
Year Retired: 1993
Years of service: 15 years as a school maintenance worker and custodian
HOW HE FIRST GOT INVOLVED: Archibeque was a strong advocate for public education even before he worked as a school employee. In 1939, while working as a bill clerk in the New Mexico Statehouse, Archibeque met former New Mexico state legislator Concha Ortiz y Pino de Kleven.
After she introduced legislation advocating for free public school textbooks, Archibeque knew he wanted to get involved too. During his years as a construction worker, Archibeque worked with his local affiliate of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America to lobby on behalf of public education.
Then in 1945 and 1957, he served in the House of Representatives of the New Mexico State Legislature, where he sat on several legislative committees, including those for education and labor.
WHAT HE’S DOING NOW: Each year, Archibeque travels to Santa Fe to lobby state legislators for education funding and support for retirees.
He also routinely travels door-to-door, educating voters about key legislative issues. In addition, he writes letters to members of Congress and calls their national offices urging them to support pro-public education legislation and health care reform.
Flat Lick, Kentucky
Years of service: 28 years as a choral music teacher and school administrator
HOW HE GETS ACTIVE: As a volunteer on his local Association’s political action committee, Sproul interviews political candidates about their views on retirement issues and teacher salaries.
He also raised funds, distributed campaign literature, and contacted voters to rally support for the Association’s endorsed candidate during Kentucky’s last governor’s race.
WHAT HE WANTS YOU TO KNOW: Too often, voters focus more on a candidate’s political party, rather than on the candidate’s position on education and retiree issues, he says. “To me it doesn’t matter what party they are,” says Sproul, a registered Republican. “I’ve supported Republicans and I’ve supported Democrats.”
HIS ADVICE: Sproul encourages all retirees to contact their local and state Associations about volunteering on a political campaign. “Once they get their toe in the door, I think it is something they will enjoy,” he says.
“Not just the camaraderie with fellow retirees, but they will see they are making a difference for retirees and for public education.”
Vivian Berner Silbiger
Broward County, Florida
Year Retired: 1998
Years of service: 40 years as a health and physical education teacher and guidance counselor
HOW SHE GETS ACTIVE: As president of the Florida Education Association-Retired, Silbiger screens political candidates for the Association’s endorsement. She also lobbies her state legislators.
Currently, she is advocating for a health insurance subsidy for retired teachers. She writes political articles for her local Association newsletter and e-mails members encouraging them to vote and become politically active.
She also supports the efforts of two FEA-Retired members running for seats in the state legislature and on a local school board. This fall, she hopes to organize an election phone bank with local retired members, as she did during the 2004 presidential election.
WHAT MATTERS MOST TO HER: On the national level, Silbiger is fighting to preserve Medicare and Social Security. Back home she has lobbied against vouchers and an effort to eliminate Florida’s class size rule.
Clemon Jimerson Sr.
Year Retired: 2006
Years of service: 37 as a high school band director
HOW HE FIRST GOT INVOLVED: Jimerson got his first taste of political activism as a teenager.
As vice president of his local youth chapter of the NAACP, Jimerson supported voter registration drives and participated in sit-ins and other nonviolent protests challenging the segregation laws of the day. As a teacher, Jimerson became active in the Democratic Party and served on the Democratic Executive Committee in Biloxi in the late 1970s.
WHAT HE’S DOING NOW: After his UniServ director distributed an e-mail about the local political party caucuses, Jimerson joined the D’Iberville Democratic Committee and serves as treasurer.
He also became chairman of the city’s Democratic caucus and a delegate to the county, regional, and state Democratic conventions. Unfortunately, he did not win a seat at the Democratic National Convention, but “I’ll make it the next time,” he says.
WHAT HE WANTS THE CANDIDATES TO KNOW: “I will be working hard to support [Barack Obama] and working hard to influence others to be involved in the campaign. I know how being involved can make a difference.”