When it comes to education legislation, what you don’t know can hurt you. NEA can help you keep up with the issues—the rest is up to you.
By Meredith Barnett
Jessica Hourigan (with orange purse) knows educators make their strongest statement with a collective voice.
Photo courtesy Jessica Hourigan
Believe it or not, lobbying is a lot like teaching: you, an expert, use your personal stories to educate individuals who are pretty clueless about your subject. You just happen to be talking to lawmakers about policy, instead of eighth graders about the Pythagorean Theorem.
There has never been a more important time for the next generation of teachers to take a stand.
“Congress is doing a lot that concerns you,” says Erin Duncan, an NEA lobbyist.
Among the hot topics Congress is debating this spring:
PELL GRANTS, which many students depend on to pay for college. Will they be preserved or slashed?
And No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which will affect your future in teaching. Will there be even more high-stakes testing, or will the federal government back off and give teachers more flexibility to use their professional knowledge in the classroom?
Plus, state legislatures are making important budget decisions on issues that affect pay, job security, and the quality of education that students will receive.
NEA-Student Program President Tommie Leaders got his first taste of lobbying in 2007 with the Got Tuition campaign. At first, he was intimidated approaching his Nebraska policymakers to rally for college affordability.
Photo by Patrick Ryan/NEA
“But, you voted them in,” he reminded himself. “They’re there to serve you!”
Now, he’s a vocal advocate for students exercising their political muscles.
“If you’ve chosen to work in the field of education, you need to have knowledge of politics,” he says. “It affects the students you work with, and it’s so hard to have an impact when there’s legislation that goes against what you’re trying to do.”
Being informed is the first step to action, advises Leaders. Know your lawmakers, where they stand, and how the legislative decisionmaking process works. Duncan recommends registering on NEA’s EducationVotes.org and checking out the Legislative Action Center on nea.org.
Once your homework’s done, start your political engines! Paying your lawmakers a visit is the quickest way to impact your leaders—a study by the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation found that 97 percent of Congressional staffers agreed that in-person visits from constituents influenced their lawmakers.
But don’t dismiss the power of making phone calls, writing letters, or dropping an email to your legislators. That same study found even these personalized communication methods were more likely to change a member’s mind than a professional lobbyist’s efforts.
When reaching out to legislators in any form, employ those same persuasive-essay tactics you teach your students. Politicians approach education from their own limited student experience, so tell your story. Try to show them what you’re concerned about as you enter the profession, or the hardships you’ve observed in your student teaching.
Leaders joked that talking with lawmakers can feel like you’re speaking different languages. But reading up on your lawmakers’ backgrounds and values can help you build a relationship, even if you disagree. Are you both from the same town, or did they work their way through college just like you are? Say it—that can be your bridge. Once you’ve made your “ask” for a specific issue, stay in touch. Keep them abreast of the issues you’re concerned about, says Duncan. It’ll help them keep matching a face—yours!—to numbers.
One of Duncan’s main focuses this year is on NCLB, which is the current incarnation of President Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). NCLB has failed to reach or even approach its key goal of closing achievement gaps. Congress is overdue to make changes, and this year, that may finally happen. But what changes? That may depend on what members of Congress and Senators hear from you.
“ESEA is always on my mind,” said Jessica Hourigan, a student at the University of Illinois. She’s co-political chair of the Illinois NEA-Student Program, and educates her fellow student members about the bill and what may change in it.
ESEA should promote school innovation, support excellence in teaching, boost funding, and cut the obsession with high-stakes testing. But it’s not likely to unless educators’ voices are heard.
"This is legislation that will impact their careers for the next 10 years," says Duncan. "It's now or never."
Not all lobbying happens in Washington—far from it! Begin at your state and local level. That's where Hourigan got her start. She attended her state legislature's Lobby Day in spring 2010, where she and thousands of education advocates rallied against proposals that would batter pensions.
"It was a huge statement—we were all coming together to see this change," she says. "It was very inspiring. If there's anything to make you politically active, it's going to Lobby Day." Many states have them—see if yours does.)
The wheels of change at the local, state, and especially federal levels can turn slowly, Hourigan realized. At Lobby Day, activists were fervently called on to lobby, but victories were small and far down the road. She recalls working right up until Christmas this year, battling a law that would cripple collective bargaining rights. It was easy to feel discouraged, but in the end, the legislature didn't pass the measure.
"So many people came together and expressed concerns, and they had support to back up their claims," she says. "Our voice was heard."
- Do your homework. Check your local and state NEA pages for updates and visit www.educationvotes.org and the Legislative Action Center for a wealth of info.
- Use technology to your advantage—connect with legislators and fellow activists through Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.
- Always be professional, honest, and upbeat. Lose your cool, and you’ll lose the case!
- Political decisionmaking can be drawn out, so stay patient and don’t get discouraged.
- You’re busy, so find the lobbying strategy that works for you. Organize a group with your chapter to write letters together, to make it more social, for instance.