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Pajama politics lets educators become activists anywhere, anytime

The art of ‘pajama politics’ lets educators become activists anywhere, anytime.

By Cindy Long

Mary Beth Solano, an English-language learner teacher in Fort Collins, Colorado, has long been frustrated by the so-called No Child Left Behind law (NCLB). Last summer, she decided to do something about it. She became an influential education activist, making her voice heard on the floor of Congress on Capitol Hill—and she did it without ever setting foot in Washington, D.C. All it took was a simple click of a mouse.

Solano visited and, via an online form, shared a personal experience about a struggling third-grader. “Cesar,” Solano wrote, “came to me in August with not word one of English. Together with his classroom teacher, significant work with me, and a fantastic group of peers, he learned English amazingly quickly… [Cesar] set as his personal goal knowing enough English to pass [the NCLB reading test]....He struggled and struggled, reading every word...over and over again until he thought he understood well enough to answer each question….He had only been working in English since August, and the reading test was given in February....Six short months with a new language, and he took the same test as native speakers…[But] Cesar earned a score that was [two points] below the cut-off, so he was labeled an ‘unsatisfactory’ learner.”

Solano didn’t know it at the time, but her story would ultimately be read by NEA President Reg Weaver as part of testimony urging Congress to modify NCLB. It’s all part of what Pam Fielding, president of Internet and grassroots advocacy consulting firm E-Advocates, calls “pajama politics.”

The Internet has broken down barriers to political activism, allowing everyday citizens to make a difference in the legislative process from the comfort of their homes, at any time of day or night—even while wearing pajamas and bunny slippers.

“Every one of us has a microphone online,” Fielding says. “On television, the news is often filtered, and our ability to respond is limited. But all of us can go online, get the facts, and make our voices heard. It’s incredibly empowering.”

Stories like Cesar’s sway legislator opinion and affect the outcome of votes, and “educators have them in droves,” says Fielding, who has worked with NEA for many years, at one point as a member of the Association’s government relations staff. While gathering stories to help fight cuts in education, she recalls an encounter with one teacher skeptical she had anything worthwhile to say. “Should I tell them I teach in a closet because we’ve run out of classroom space?” she finally asked.

E-mail’s Instant Impact
In the old days, when a bill to cut education funding headed to the congressional floor, NEA headquarters would call state affiliates, state affiliates would call local affiliates, local affiliates would call building representatives, and, finally, building representatives would call a meeting where everyone would gather in a room to write postcards to Congress. By the time the cards were dropped in the mail, the battle was often lost.

So You’re Thinking of Running?

It’s not too early to begin planning your race for 2007 or 2008. Here’s how to get started.
Get active.
Volunteer with citizenship groups.
Know the issues in your neighborhood.
Start practicing asking people for money and for their vote—in person and in writing. “I don’t have a lot of wealthy friends,” says educator and Waukesha, Wisconsin, Mayor Larry Nelson with a laugh. Still, his initial mailing to 850 friends and relatives netted thousands of dollars for his campaign.
Recognize that teaching abilities are crucial elements to being a successful elected official. If at first you don’t succeed, run, run again. It’s tough for a newcomer to defeat an incumbent. An initial bid for office will boost your recognition, and make a win more likely the next time around.

Now, within moments, NEA can alert members by e-mail about proposed legislation and direct them to’s Legislative Action Center, where they can send ready-made messages to their representatives asking them to vote for or against a bill. Simply enter a ZIP code, select the appropriate text, hit submit, and voilà—instant activism.

“It’s very powerful, and it works,” Fielding says.

Last March, the Senate passed the Specter-Harkin amendment to the FY07 congressional budget resolution, which added $7 billion for education and health programs. The amendment, which passed by a 73-27 margin, reversed significant budget cuts made the previous fiscal year—an outcome due, in part, to a flurry of e-mails from NEA members. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) praised NEA members and other activists for “the hundreds of thousands of phone calls and e-mails...which created a tsunami that just could not be stopped.”

According to research by the Congressional Management Foundation, Capitol Hill staffers report that personal interactions between members and their constituents, including e-mails, have more impact on members’ decision-making processes than visits from lobbyists. And the more personal the message, the greater the impact. Of those surveyed, 44 percent said that when their boss hasn’t decided which way to vote, a personalized communication had a lot of influence; another 52 percent said it had some influence. Nearly 80 percent of congressional staffers surveyed said they believe the Internet has made it easier for constituents to become involved in public policy; and 48 percent believe it has made lawmakers more responsive.

Eli Pariser of, the well-known activist organization that grew out of a 1998 petition asking Congress to “move on” past the impeachment proceedings of President Clinton, has helped power the Internet’s political punch. Pariser joined MoveOn in 2001, at the ripe age of 21, and directed its campaign against the Iraq war, tripling the site’s membership in the process. Now, as’s political action executive director, he uses the Internet to mobilize more than 3 million members to sign online petitions, send e-mails to elected officials, organize demonstrations, and donate money for political advertisements and campaigns.

“Time and again, we’ve forestalled or blocked bad policies and enacted good legislation,” he says. “Often, members of Congress will think nobody is paying attention to a particular bill. We’ve been able to demonstrate that they’re wrong.”

Many people look at what they sometimes consider a convoluted or corrupt political system, and wonder what one letter, e-mail, or phone call could do. A lot, says Pariser. “The Internet allows you to act together on a particular issue,” he says. “Your one voice is raised from a single whisper to a deafening roar when combined with others taking the same action.”
Taking action online is the first step to making sure you’re represented in the Washington lawmaking process, according to Pariser, who points out that there are about four special interest lobbyists for every member of Congress. “Most aren’t interested in what’s best for the country, but what’s best for their clients, who often represent big business,” he says. “They’re not interested in the common good.”

The ‘Influentials’
That’s why it’s vital that education professionals—whose work is focused on the common good—make their voices heard.

“Teachers represent one of the few blocks of our society with the knowledge and credibility to make a strong case for the things we need to do to make our communities better,” Pariser says.

Fielding agrees. She says educators may not know it, but they represent a portion of America’s “influentials”—the 10 percent of society who, according to the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet, “tell their neighbors what to buy, which politicians to support, and where to vacation.”

Among educator influentials are school support professionals—the bus drivers, custodians, food service workers, paraprofessionals, security guards, nurses, secretaries, technicians, and skilled trades professionals. They represent a large voting block, and a powerful one: They’re highly connected to the community, not only through their schools, but also through religious organizations, their children, and community groups like VFW, little league, soccer teams, or neighborhood watch committees. And they’re significantly impacted by politicians’ economic decisions—whether to raise the minimum wage, for example, or to enforce overtime or health and safety laws, or to guarantee employee rights to collective bargaining or due process.

“When you’re a public employee, you help elect or defeat your own bosses, which makes you unique,” says NEA policy analyst Dave Winans.

Which is exactly why educators should participate in politics.

“They have high credibility with the public, and with lawmakers,” Fielding says. “Everyone knows that educators care passionately about their students and the issues that affect them, and in just two minutes on the Internet, they can make a difference. It’s two minutes they can’t afford not to take.” 

Ask the Mayor
You’ve Got What It Takes, Too!

Like the bumper sticker says, it’s too bad that the people who really know how to run the country are busy teaching. If you’ve ever led a lesson, stopped a fight, or talked to a parent, you’ve got what it takes to succeed  in politics.

Just ask Mayor Larry Nelson.

“I’ve had good on-the-job training,” says Nelson, who took a leave of absence from his middle school in April to serve at the helm of Waukesha, Wisconsin.

Long active in area politics—he served as an alderman a few years back—Nelson knew plenty of voters. That helps, as you can’t win an election alone. Even though Nelson was the underdog in this largely conservative area, his volunteer ranks swelled with Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

Nelson also wasn’t afraid to put on his walking shoes and knock on doors, hand out brochures and yard signs, get the 400 signatures necessary to be put on the ballot, and ask and answer questions. Then, last October, he began his campaign.

I never missed one day of school,” he says. “I didn’t want even one student to go home and say, ‘Mr. Nelson wasn’t in school today.

—Rebecca L. Weber

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The 5-Minute Activist

You’re busy, right? Too busy to get involved in elections? Not so fast—the life of an overworked educator can still accommodate political activism. If you’ve got just a few minutes at the break of day, or between picking up from soccer practice and making dinner, or even before you turn over and turn out the lights, you have time to make a difference in getting pro-public school candidates elected to your statehouse and Congress.

If you have 5 minutes:
Visit NEA’s Legislative Action Center and register to become a cyber lobbyist. You can receive “action alerts” on the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) and other important education issues by signing up at

If you have 10 minutes:
E-mail your elected representatives about important education issues and remind them that the voters care. Find your elected officials and ready-made e-mails on important issues at Find out how your members of Congress measure up in supporting children and public schools at

If you have 30 minutes:
Talk to your colleagues at work about how politics affects your jobs—through funding, class size, salary, recertification requirements, NCLB, and rules requiring paraprofessionals to go back to school. Talk to other friends and family, too! Many people aren’t aware of the day-to-day struggles educators face.

If you have 1 hour:
Read your local newspaper, pay attention to education stories, and write letters to the editor. Those letters can be an excellent way to inform the community and influence public opinion. For help, go to

If you have 2 hours:
Work a phone bank for your local Association or pro-public schools candidate. Attend a candidate forum or rally. Hand out leaflets for your candidate.

If you have 1 day:
Volunteer at a polling station to talk to voters.  Host a “house party” where voters can meet local candidates or just talk about the issues. (It’ll be fun!) Talk to your local Association about how you can help get the vote out on Election Day.