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Virginia Journal of Education


Making Yourself Heard


11 steps to get policymakers’ attention

By Susan N. Graham

Ask an educator about advocating for public schools and the reply is often, “Oh, I vote. But no, I really don’t have any interest in all that political action stuff. I’m too busy with school." Some see education politics as a distraction: “The kids, not the politics,” they may say.

But the reality is that class loads, curriculum, school calendars, student assessments, lunch menus, retention policies, bus schedules, performance evaluations, library selections, CPR training, technology use and a million other day-to-day school issues are determined by federal, state and local legislation. Every school policy and every instructional decision is connected to a political decision.

The Virginia Standards of Quality (SOQs) drive much local policy and, because the General Assembly lays the foundation for the SOQs, influencing the actions of our state legislators may be the best use of our advocacy efforts.  
 
Our Delegates and Senators are bombarded with well-intended ideas that may seem reasonable, cost effective, simple, and have quick, measurable results. But school improvement, like home improvement, isn’t quite as simple as it looks. The “easy installation” directions for many school reforms tend to offer one-size-fits-all schools and student guidelines. Experienced educators can often foresee the unanticipated consequences that can happen when policies encounter reality. 

So, why don’t decision-makers seem to listen to educators, who have front-line knowledge and experience? Because they think we don’t know? Are we passively waiting to be asked? Education legislation has an impact on the effectiveness of our work, the quality of our schools, the health of our communities and, most of all, the welfare and future of our students—so maybe it’s time for each of us to step up and speak up for policies that better serve the children.

Here are 10 steps that can be effective guidelines:


1 -  Know the people who represent you. 
You probably know the names of your Delegate and Senator, but if they visited your school would you recognize them? The “Who’s my Legislator?” tool on the General Assembly’s website shows the boundaries of your representatives’ districts, committees on which they serve, bills they sponsor, names of their staff, and biographical information. Use the link to your representatives’ personal websites to find out more about their backgrounds, connections, priorities, positions and personalities.

If possible, introduce yourself as a constituent before approaching policymakers as an activist. Attend a debate, town hall meeting, hearing or committee meeting as an interested and open-minded observer. Ask for an opinion without sharing your own position. Come prepared with a business card that includes contact information. Offer to be a resource for a front-line perspective on education issues. Begin by listening and you’ll be better positioned to be heard as an advocate later on.
 
2 -  Do your homework before taking a position.
When it’s time to advocate, you need to know what you’re talking about. How well have you researched your concern? Are you hoping to create new policies or change existing ones? What’s the history on this topic? Is it a local issue or a statewide concern? Who has the authority to make changes? What is a probable timeline to introduce legislation, secure funding and begin implementation?  

Most of the answers are buried somewhere in the 720 chapters of legislation concerning the State Board of Education in the Code of Virginia (http://law.lis.virginia.gov/admincode/title8/agency20).  The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) evaluates state agencies and programs, and legislators depend on it to analyze the need, impact, feasibility and potential cost of proposed bills. Check out the search engine on the JLARC website (http://jlarc.virginia.gov/).

You won’t be effective if you are uninformed about funding, because education is a major expenditure in both state and local budgets. The SOQs are minimum standards, so the cost of many services and positions must be met with local tax dollars. To raise those dollars, localities may depend of proffers and issuing bonds. The Virginia Literary Fund is a source for low-interest loans to finance capital improvements, such as school construction and debt service for technology funding.

Some federal and state funds come as grants for a specific purpose, such as technology or school nutrition. Localities sometimes negotiate proffers with business and industry that are earmarked for capital improvements or school construction. Teaching positions may seem more important than textbooks and a proffer might be better spent on new buses rather than artificial turf for the high school field. When an expenditure seems out of alignment, it’s helpful to determine how it’s funded.

Formulas and rules that constrain the distribution of education dollars also provide stability. Dedicating funds for specific purposes can provide shelter for valuable programs and services that might otherwise be cut.  

You’re probably thinking, “That’s impossible, I don’t have time do all that!” But, as a VEA member, you have a wealth of resources available to inform and support your advocacy efforts. Access the Members Only section of the VEA website (www.veanea.org) to check your representatives’ education voting record and find helpful research. Contact your UniServ Director for additional help or advice.

3 - Build your legislative agenda.
What matters most to you? Before you speak up, clarify and prioritize your concerns. You’ll probably discover that many of your issues are shared by fellow members. Some agenda items may not affect you directly, and there may even be positions taken by VEA, as an organization, that you don’t personally agree with. That’s OK. Members created VEA’s official agenda and our board members, who represent us all, approved it. It’s a consensus opinion meant to inform, not necessarily instruct, members’ advocacy.

Consider signing up to be a VEA Cyberlobbyist. It’s a good place to start building your skills and gaining confidence as an advocate. You’ll receive “action alerts” asking you to contact your representatives when an important bill is being considered. There’s a prepared message you can send, but a message in your own words may get more attention. (Remember to use your personal, not your school, email account.) During the legislative session you can also call the Constituent Viewpoint hotline (800-889-0229 outside Richmond or 804-698-1990 in the Richmond area) to leave a message for your representatives expressing your opinion on a legislative issue. 

4 -  Craft your own message.
Becoming a VEA Cyberlobbyist is a great start, but what if you could sway the opinion of others, too? Multiple voices on a single issue make a stronger impression than one voice speaking to multiple issues.  Begin by sharing information with colleagues and encouraging them to join you in cyberlobbying. 

A surprisingly limited number of people make time to communicate directly with elected officials, so composing your own email or an old-fashioned letter can have more influence than a form email or postcard messaging effort. It may also help you clarify your own thinking and be more convincing.

Be specific about the issue and the action you hope will be taken. Offer facts to back up your opinions. Share a personal story. And try to keep it to less than about 250 words—if it’s too long, it won’t get read. 

5 - Respect the limits of attention and time.
Whether it is 20 kindergartners or 200,000 constituents, as the old song says, when “Everybody’s talking at me, I don’t hear a word they’re saying.” Because we’re challenged every day to meet the needs of all students, we sympathize with policymakers as they address the concerns of diverse constituencies. Each of our 100 Delegates represents a little over 80,000 individuals, and there are about 200,000 of us in each Senate district. While most Virginians value education, other issues demand consideration, such as transportation, health care and business development. Respect your representatives’ obligation to provide every constituent the same consideration you expect.

6 - Choose your mode of delivery.
You’ve done your homework and composed your message: Now it’s time to decide the best way to make contact. Did you write an email message that will fit on a single screen or a letter that fits on a single page? Don’t send it just yet. Let it sit for a while, and then re-read it to check your tone as well as your syntax.

Are you ready to take a more public position by responding with an online comment to a news story, participating in social media conversations, speaking up at a public hearing, writing a letter to the editor or submitting an editorial piece to your local paper? If so, be clear you’re speaking as a private citizen, not as a representative of your school or your school division.

Face-to-face contact may be the most challenging. What if, after you introducing yourself and handing over your business card, your Senator calls and asks you to come by the office to offer your input on proposed education legislation? 

Don’t worry: Chances are you won’t get that call. But legislators do depend on constituent input to make decisions. They regularly mail surveys, use telephone polling and hold town hall meetings to find out where voters stand. Take time to respond. When response is limited, and it often is, your opinion can carry greater weight. Be attuned to loaded questions designed to validate a predetermined position. Don’t hesitate to write in your own responses.

7 - Promote your perspective.
Representatives do seek citizen opinion, but they rely heavily on information from interest groups. Lobbyists represent those groups, initiating contact, seeking backing for legislation, providing research, speaking at public hearings and committee meetings, and building coalitions to move their groups’ agendas forward. Their availability, familiarity with GA procedures, clear-cut talking points and assistance writing proposals gives them access and voice.

You have that on your side, too. VEA has a lobbying presence in Richmond, and the ear of legislators. But your personal lobbying efforts have influence. You vote and that gives your perspective weight, too.
 
8 - Focus on solutions, not problems.
Regardless of how you communicate, your message needs to be clear, informed, positive and polite. As Loudoun Education Association Vice President Dave Palanzi says, “Sometimes it’s not only what you say, but how you say it that’s important.” 

Begin by thanking elected officials and community members for their support, even when it seems insufficient to you, because you never want to accuse anyone of not supporting education. Point out positives. Rather than identifying what’s not working, focus on how additional progress can be made. Address costs in terms of return on investment. Have a brief personal story to support your position. Frame your goal in terms of how it will contribute to the common good.

Don’t waste your time on debating the merits or weaknesses of opposing points of view. Avoid confrontation. It only distracts from your message and energizes opponents. Move your agenda forward by nudging the undecided and building awareness in the uninvolved.

9 - Meet face to face.
Solution-focused advocacy can be easiest in writing because you have time to think about what you want to say and you can stick to your own talking points without being distracted. But, while a one-way conversation is good, dialogue is better. It’s also more difficult.

If you have a chance for a one-on-one conversation, be ready. Don’t be disappointed if you can’t get an appointment. Take advantage of the chance to share your information with the legislative assistant if your Delegate or Senator isn’t available.

Be ready with a single opening sentence that briefly explains your issue. To make sure you don’t ramble, plan and practice this in advance. Save your solution and supporting information. It’s your turn to listen.

What your representative says in response will be informative, and what’s not said may be equally or more so. Be ready with follow-up questions. Provide supporting research by asking, “Were you aware…?” Offer your solution in terms of possibility: “What if…?” You may not get the answers you want, but you’ll find out more about where this individual stands and where you need to strengthen your message for next time.

Expect 10-15 minutes at the most. Close by repeating your request for support, and ask when to expect action to be taken. Staple your business card to highlighted reading material and place it in the representative’s hand. Regardless of the outcome, thank him or her for their time. Follow up with an email or personal note.

Hesitant? Personal advocacy requires thinking on your feet, keeping a cool head, and some practice, so consider coming to Richmond for VEA’s annual Lobby Day in January. VEA staff will brief you on the issues and give you tips on the etiquette of advocacy. Shadowing an experienced Association member will give you confidence.

10 - Step back before stepping up.
Before attempting to influence the thinking and actions of others, step back and prepare yourself and your agenda. Start off by assuming good intentions in others, even if those intentions have seemed questionable in the past. The politics surrounding education can be misinformed and misguided; the legislation faulty in design and poorly implemented. But keep in mind that no one sets out with the goal of doing harm to children.

Can you advocate without being aggressive? If a healthy debate causes your blood pressure and voice to rise, you may be happier and more effective staying home and yelling at pundits on TV. Robert Frost said, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” If you want to be heard, be ready to listen.

Look for common ground. Be sensitive to the difference between an effort to influence and an attempt to manipulate. Learn to compromise on issues without compromising your personal integrity.

Join your voice with others. You’ll gain momentum and lighten your load. Don’t worry about who gets the credit, worry about the outcome.

Be patient. Change takes time.

Be persistent.   

11 -  Remember what you learned in kindergarten. 
As author Robert Fulghum reminded us: Play fair. Don't hit people. And when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.

 

Graham, an NBCT, is retired from teaching in Stafford County after 28 years in the classroom. A member of VEA-Retired, she currently moderates discussions for the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory, a virtual professional community of teacher leaders.

 


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