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Virginia Journal of Education


On Point

Why politics matters


by Kitty J. Boitnott, PhD, NBCT

If it’s true that “all politics is local,” as the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said, then it’s also true that all (or at least almost all) educational issues are determined by political decisions made at either the local, state or federal level. School budgets, worker contracts, beginning and ending dates for the school calendar, the requirements of No Child Left Behind, and Virginia’s Standards of Learning, Quality and Accreditation: all are issues that have a significant impact on public school educators and students, and all are based on decisions made in political forums.

Most elected leaders and legislators try to make good decisions grounded in what’s best for the families and children in their districts. It’s important to note, however, that for the most part, those elected leaders are not educators, and for most of them, their most recent classroom experience happened anywhere from 10 to 50 years ago. As a result, it may be unreasonable to think that they can make good decisions unless they have good advisors. And that’s where professional educators come in.

It’s important for educators to pay attention to what legislators are doing and to inform them when they are about to make a decision that might have a negative impact on public education. Too often, legislators are attracted to “quick fixes” without being aware of possible negative consequences. They don’t mean to set bad policy. They need better advisors.

At the state level, our VEA lobbyists monitor the General Assembly as it makes decisions on issues that affect our students and us. Our lobbyists are there to represent our membership, but they’re not enough: they need the help of our members at home if they hope to make any real, meaningful impact. That means that educators need to monitor legislative sessions and be willing to take actions such as making telephone calls and writing letters and e-mails that can be effective in influencing legislators’ views—and votes. Our legislators need us to educate them about the issues that we understand best, and we have a responsibility to keep them well-informed because it’s our students who will be affected.

We need members to volunteer to write or call legislators when an issue of importance is before the General Assembly. If you’re willing to serve as a cyberlobbyist, I urge you to sign up today so that you can start receiving timely information about the actions of our legislators and our legislative bodies. You can sign up through the VEA website, www.veanea.org. We need our members to mobilize sometimes on very short notice, and our cyberlobbying efforts sometimes make the difference between having a bad legislative idea stopped in its tracks or having it become law.
 
The fact of the matter is, however, that we need our members to mobilize and meet with their legislators before they ever get to Richmond so that our political activism becomes proactive, as opposed to reactive. Yes, we need to stop bad legislation as it pops up, but I believe that we are in a position to stop bad legislation from being written and, more importantly, we can work to get some of our own initiatives through the legislative pipeline if we are more proactive at home in the months prior to the sounding of the gavel in January.

That means that our local associations need to take some real responsibility for the individuals that they help send to Richmond and Washington by becoming more actively involved in the electoral process and then maintaining personal and professional relationships with those individuals after they’re elected. We are the education experts. We need to use our expertise in educating our legislative leaders.

My challenge to you, then, my fellow VEA member, is to get involved in this fall’s electoral process. Work to support those candidates who promise to support you in your efforts to teach and work in our public schools. Get true friends of education elected, and as soon as the election is over, start to educate your legislators regarding those issues that you know will have a bearing on what you do every day.

Otto von Bismarck said, “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” It’s not a particularly attractive process and there is nothing neat or orderly about it. But it’s the process we have inherited, and as educators, it is our responsibility—indeed it is our duty—to make the process work for us, for our colleagues and for our students. Educators and politics is an unlikely combination, perhaps, but one that is a reality in today’s world and one that we need to work to our advantage.

Boitnott is president of the VEA.

 


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