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Teach pupils about elections by letting them hear all sides

April 06, 2004

Sixth graders aren't old enough to vote, but are apparently old enough to be used as pawns in political campaigns. No matter how heated a political race gets, there are some things that should be out of bounds, and this is one of them.

The alleged offense occurred in Kanawha County, W.Va., where a literature class homework assignment contained material attacking state Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw, now seeking another 12-year term on the high court.

Last year McGraw was targeted for defeat by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its West Virginia affiliate.

McGraw's offense? According to July 2003 Forbes Magazine article on the race, McGraw irked the chamber by upholding workers' compensation claims 88 percent of the time over a five-year period.

The Forbes article also said the chamber was upset by a 1999 case in which McGraw ruled that workers could sue their employers if they feared a future accident - a ruling which has come to be known as the "no proof-no problem" rule.

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The Associated Press reported that the assignment in question asked students to answer questions on an essay critical of McGraw's behavior on the bench. To answer the questions, it follows that the students have to read the essay first.

School officials say they were not aware of the assignment and had had no complaints about it. They need to find out, for two reasons.

The first is that sixth graders are usually not politically sophisticated enough to tell when they're being fed a bunch of baloney. The second is that the schools are paid for by all the taxpayers and it's unfair to use those resources to push a candidate that some may not support.

That's not to say that students shouldn't be learning about the issues surrounding the political campaigns. One that's arisen in the high court race is a Web site posting by the campaign of McGraw's challenger, Greenbrier County Circuit Judge Jim Rowe.

The posting was an editorial from the Beckley Register-Herald criticizing judicial activism, which it said began with the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

Now there's a good subject for a classroom debate: When the legislature fails to act, when is it proper for the courts to step in?

But that debate should be set up so that students can hear both sides and then decide for themselves. The last thing West Virginia needs is to raise citizens who don't know how to tell when their political leaders are leading them astray.

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