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ESP Game-Changers

These support professionals play politics to win for their students, schools, and colleagues.

By John Rosales

Ever have a burning desire to make a difference in how your school district is run or get tired of being the target of some politician’s easy answer to solving a budget crisis? If so, then you are ready to get involved in politics. Turning out to vote is important, but may not be enough to counter legislators and school board members who want to privatize ESP jobs, lay off educators, and cut back on ESP work hours.

What can you do? Get in the game. Attend political meetings. Go to demonstrations. Contact local media about education issues. Become a bona fide political activist, like the four ESPs below who are championing the cause to do what is right for their students, their colleagues, and their community.

Michelle Shepard
Columbia Missouri
NEA Missouri

Once, when Michelle Shepard met a legislator at a political dinner, she didn’t think he’d ever remember her, a seemingly unimportant paraeducator from a different legislative district.

“A couple of months later, I came across him at the statehouse,” Shepard says. “He remembered me and asked that I e-mail him and visit him at the capitol because he wanted an educator’s insight on educational issues.”

“That was when I knew that educators’ voices are being heard and can have an impact on public policy and community issues,” says the special education paraeducator with Columbia Public Schools.

As part of her almost daily political activism, Shepard distributes voter registration cards, volunteers at phone banks, e-mails legislators about education issues, and attends fundraisers for candidates recommended by NEA and Missouri NEA.

When she is not serving on a screening team for local and state candidates, Shepard will write press releases regarding local school board debates and issues.

“I find politics fascinating,” she says. “On Capitol Action Days at the statehouse, I like having face-to-face time with legislators.”

Jean Fay
Education Association Massachusetts

“I like to tell people that I’ve been politically active since the womb,” says Jean Fay, a paraeducator at Crocker Farm Elementary School in Amherst. Growing up, Fay and her six siblings participated in political campaigns and community service, with their parents’ encouragement.

“We all have the power to affect public policy in some way,” she says, “especially ESPs.”

Fay says the political activism of ESPs is particularly important to school districts because more than 75 percent of ESPs live, work, shop, worship, and vote in the same school district.

“That is a lot of power when it comes to school board elections,” says Fay, a Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) board member. “ESPs have a lot to gain by being politically active.”

According to a recent survey by NEA’s ESP Quality Department, ESPs are more than willing to get politically active. Those ESPs who were surveyed expressed a strong willingness to speak out on issues (53 percent), sign petitions (80 percent), write to a state legislator (73 percent) or U.S. legislator (67 percent), and attend a rally with Association members (59 percent). The survey data was gathered at this year’s national ESP conference held last March in Washington, D.C.

“Everyone has some sort of spark in them,” says Fay, the 2011 Massachusetts ESP of the Year. “Some people are great at holding signs, or getting out the vote, writing letters, or giving speeches. Everyone has something great in them. They just need to find it.”

Dolly Handel
Widefield Education Association

“My state senator and I are on a first-name basis,” says Handel, a secretary at Mesa Ridge High School in Colorado Springs. “If a bill comes up that affects my local or CEA (Colorado Education Association), I e-mail or call him and usually hear back within 24 hours.”

It is no accident that Handel has the attention of state Sen. John Morse.

“I walked door-to-door for him during his campaign,” says Handel, a CEA board member. “Whenever you do that, they remember you.”

Handel says ESPs can become politically active by donating just one hour a week, for example, as a cyber lobbyist.

“Click, click, click and you’ve sent a letter to a legislator,” she says. “If you have people in office who don’t care about ESPs, then this is a quick way to do something about it.”

NEA offers the opportunity to become a cyber lobbyist at Other opportunities for activism that don’t take a lot of time include writing to local media about upcoming Association events and issues, monitoring school board meetings, and building relationships with ESP allies such as, civil rights organizations, faith-based and labor groups.

“When I speak with ESPs, I’ll get some to cyber lobby or come out to a rally,” Handel says. “Not all, but some.” 

Jim McClure
Mentor Classified Employees Association (MCEA)

Jim McClure says the easiest way to become politically active is to contribute to the NEA Fund for Children and Public Education. Thanks in part to McClure’s leadership, about 43 percent of his local’s 354 ESP members contribute to the Fund through continuing payroll deduction.

“Beyond that, I have found building personal relationships with legislators and being able to talk to them or their staff concerning ESP issues really makes a difference,” says McClure, an NEA board member.

He speaks from experience. In 2009, McClure and others with the Ohio Education Association (OEA) protested a state law that allowed school districts to privatize bus transportation. It was repealed.

“We lobbied legislators at our state capitol and we were effective,” he says. “However, the language is once again being proposed in the two-year budget and we are lobbying to get it removed.”

Through collective political action, MCEA members helped to collect signatures that will place a referendum on the November ballot to repeal Ohio Senate Bill 5, the recently passed anti-collective bargaining law.

“If it is not repealed, it will devastate our students, our communities, and OEA members and their families,” he says. “Ohio’s ESPs are standing strong in this fight.”

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  • For more about ESPs, visit NEA's Education Support Professionals site.