Be Bold. Be Significant.
Be an ESP Advocate for Public Schools.
By John Rosales
Education support professionals (ESPs) are significant contributors to the education, safety, and success of public school students. Unfortunately, legislators and other elected officials and their appointees act and vote as if ESPs are insignificant. Too often, legislators are quick to privatize or eliminate ESP jobs. It’s unfair and sometimes unjust. But it happens.
At the NEA ESP National Conference last March in Memphis, Tennessee, two ESPs—Leslie Dake from Iowa and Jean Fay from Massachusetts—and UniServ Manager Phil Becker of Washington held workshops that focused on how ESPs can get politically active and be politically significant.
Paraeducator, Crocker Farm Elementary School, Amherst
Quote: “Like many of my colleagues, I want safe streets, good public schools, and well-maintained roads. The decisions that affect these things are made by elected officials.”
Fay’s ways for ESPs to become politically involved:
Stay informed. “Keep up on the important issues that affect your communities—whether it be decisions on curriculum changes, transportation funding, or changes to health insurance—all of these decisions are made by elected officials, and all of these decisions affect ESPs as public employees and as community residents.”
Introduce yourself to your elected officials. “Invite them to a meeting and tell them the issues that affect you. As you become more familiar with your elected officials, it will become easier to pick up the phone or to ask them about an issue that is being voted on that could affect public employees.”
Don't be afraid to speak up! “I’ve been invited the past two years to testify before my state Ways and Means Committee’s budget hearing. Who better to tell the people who are deciding how to fund public education than those of us who work in public education. Our voices and stories are important and need and deserve to be heard.”
Find an activity that you enjoy doing within a political setting. “If it’s writing you like, then send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Hate to write but love to speak? Volunteer to make GOTV (Get Out the Vote) calls close to Election Day.”
Finance secretary, West High School, Sioux City
Quote: “No one knows what ESPs do better than ESPs.”
Leslie’s advice for budding ESP lobbyists:
Speak to elected officials. “We need to make our careers real to them. Keeping in contact with school board members, and state and national elected legislators will improve the chances of pro-education policies getting passed.”
Lobby. “Lobbying doesn’t have to be a full-time job. Sending an e-mail or making a phone call to an elected official should be quick but thoughtful. Know your facts. And tell your story about how a certain bill will affect your job, family, and the students you work with.”
Make lobbying real. “Unless the legislator has a child of his or her own in special education, for example, they probably won’t know who we are and what we do. So, tell them so in your own way.”
Organize a lobbying group. “There is power in numbers and votes! If legislators only hear from our paid lobbyists, they might assume the problems are not important enough for us to contact them.”
UniServ Manager, Washington Education Association
Quote: “I am sometimes asked if a particular issue taking place in a school or related to school policy is a union issue. I respond that they are all union issues, and that we should have an opinion on everything from textbook and curriculum selection to how the entrance and egress from the building parking lot is set up. A good union has its nose in everything.”
Phil’s guidelines for locals on building political strength:
Accrue power. “The best locals have depth. They have members involved in all issues, not solely collective bargaining or dispute resolution.”
Believe you are as valuable as any public service worker. “ESPs work in a school hierarchy where they are at the bottom. When it is time for ESPs to assert themselves in bargaining, it is sometimes difficult for them to disassociate themselves from that ingrained hierarchy. Having a thriving union, in which all are involved and informed, provides the opportunity for ESPs to keep equality in the forefront of their minds.”
Use your “street cred.” “ESPs live, shop, volunteer, recreate, and worship, for the most part, in the communities in which they work. They are ambassadors for the schools where they work. They have 'street cred.' It pains me to see many of them uninvolved in politics because they are unaware of the inherent power this brings.”
Build capacity and build leadership. “The capacity of a union correlates to the number of members involved. Capacity is power, and that power correlates to a union’s success. This success attracts others who want to join a successful organization. Also, one, two, or three leaders doing everything limits not only the ability of power to develop but also the opportunity for success. One, two, or three people simply cannot do what one, two, or 300-strong union members can do.”
- Education Support Professionals
Information on the NEA ESP program.
- Privatization Efforts Find New Target in School Secretaries and Teaching Aides.
- ESPs Larger Than Life in Las Vegas.