Feature

Advice to Advocates

What leads to effective advocacy? State policymakers share the inside scoop by Suzanne Bassi, Randy DeHoff


Editor’s Note: In hopes of shedding light on how public school leaders can better advocate on the state level for the needs of their schools and their students, The School Administrator turned to policymakers in different settings and with different political leanings.

We invited a trio—a Republican state legislator from the Chicago suburbs, a rural Democratic legislator in Oregon and the Republican vice-chair of the state board of education in Colorado—to address what they observe of educational advocates, good practices and bad, and to suggest ways superintendents and other educators can be more effective in their lobbying efforts.

Their perspectives also come with a full appreciation of the role played by school system leaders. One of the contributors spent several years as a member of her local school board before moving on to state politics. Another served as a district superintendent simultaneous with her first term as a state legislator before retiring from school duty.

The accounts of the three follow.

Relationships Matter

BY SUZANNE “SUZIE” BASSI

Being an effective lobbyist for education issues is truly one of the more important jobs anyone involved with education, from administrators to parent volunteers, can do.

I spent 10 years as a high school teacher, with not a clue to the principle that if you care about education, you must care about legislation. I learned this while spending eight years as a board of education member in charge of keeping our local board abreast of what was going on in Springfield, the state capital. Now after three terms in the state legislature, I have to say that my local school people are very good lobbyists.

What the local school leaders and board members do when trying to influence my thinking is worth sharing.

First, make sure you get to know your local state representative and senator—not just casually, but with some real interaction. Pay special attention to the relationships your legislators have with your finance people as they are the staff members your legislators will need to call on during the budget process. So much of what affects local districts occurs during budgeting.

Secondly, when you call your legislators about a specific bill, mention the object of the legislation as well as the bill number. Most of us deal with 2,000 to 4,000 bills each session and after a while, it becomes hard to remember the number. If you can provide your legislator with a single-page, bulleted description of your side of the issue, it helps us.

Third, try to remember that your legislator is being pushed in probably three different directions on any given issue and will not always be able to vote the way you would like. Be sure to keep the relationship open for future issues. Every now and then, try to do something for your legislator, instead of always asking for something. For example, if you are fortunate enough to have legislators who demonstrate a strong commitment to education, do what you can to help them stay in office. They will remember you.

Also be sure to alert your legislator to the issues that concern you and keep communicating those concerns. Often events move so rapidly during a legislative session that your issues may inadvertently be overlooked. Plus, remember to say thank you, especially when you know an issue was controversial.

And last but not least, keep in mind that if you care about the future of public education, you must care about legislation. At the risk of being preachy, I would remind you that democracy is not a spectator sport.

Suzie Bassi, a former local school board member, is a Republican state representative in the Illinois General Assembly. She can be reached at 110 W. Northwest Highway, Palatine, IL 60067. E-mail: RepBassi@aol.com


Credibility First

 

BY RANDY DeHOFF

From accountability to zero tolerance, public education policy is an alphabet soup of controversial issues. When policymakers such as me consider these issues, advocates from all sides want to influence the discussions. Thus, like Mary and her lamb, wherever education policymakers go, advocates are sure to follow.

In the five years I have served as an elected member of the Colorado State Board of Education, I’ve learned a few general tips that will help improve your effectiveness as an advocate for K-12 education.

First, establish and maintain your credibility. This is a highly personal, long-term process that is worth all of the upfront effort. For me, credibility begins by demonstrating that you are advocating for students, especially individual students, rather than the system. Even if you are defending the current system of public education as the best we have been able to devise so far, acknowledge its failures where they exist—the persistent and inexcusable achievement gap, for example, or schools where fewer than a third of the students learn to read. Then show you are willing to consider solutions to those failures that focus on helping those students rather than protecting the adults in the system.

I often hear claims that holding principals and administrators accountable for student achievement in their schools is unfair. To the extent those administrators lack control of the budget, staff assignments, curriculum and other factors that affect that achievement, I agree. One proposed solution is to relax or reduce the accountability and consequences on administrators. That approach only protects the adults in the system and does nothing to help students. My preferred solution is to change the system and give administrators the authority and responsibility they need to produce the desired achievement.

Second, know your subject. Understand the arguments for and against your position, and be able to express them in your own words. Know the data that support your position, and try and be familiar with the data that support the other side. Anticipate the arguments against your position and be prepared with a counterargument. The more thoroughly you understand all sides of an issue, the better you can defend your position.

 

Read Broadly


A good way to start gaining that knowledge is to subscribe to electronic newsletters or publications from various ideological perspectives. My favorites include Education Week, the Progressive Policy Institute’s 21st Century Schools Project Bulletin, the Education Gadfly from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the ASCD SmartBrief. If a particular issue interests you, such as charter schools or teacher training, read the current studies and research reports on the subject. At least read the executive summaries and key sections of the reports.

 

When reviewing those reports, use some of the critical thinking skills we are trying to teach our students. Draw your own conclusions from the verifiable data. Don’t accept the author’s interpretations of that data as fact. Research on charter schools and student achievement, for example, doesn’t yet prove much about charter schools. But it does buttress Mark Twain’s thesis about “lies, damn lies and statistics.”

Don’t rely on the local news media or advocacy newsletters. News reports typically repeat the spin from a press release, which may or may not be accurate. Advocacy newsletters rarely contain more than sound bites: “NCLB is an unfunded mandate.” “Choice drains money from public schools.” “School choice is the last hope for children in failing schools.” Those slogans add a lot of noise but little light to the debate.

Similarly, electronic petitions, mass mailings, standardized postcards and even personal letters that merely repeat what an advocacy group told you to say are totally ineffective. Politicians and public leaders ignore them. If you have not taken the time to understand an issue enough to make your own arguments in your own words, you are not an effective advocate.

 

Time Sensitivity


That leads to the third general rule: Be respectful of my time. All of us will put as much time into our jobs as we can, but it is not unlimited. Find out what questions we have, how your information helps answer those questions. Are we particularly interested in that issue, or would your time be better spent with a different board member.

 

Find out how we prefer to be contacted. I prefer e-mail. Others prefer phone calls or letters. Then, when you make your case, be as concise as possible. Make your own arguments in your own words. Few of us are natural, impromptu speakers, so writing your remarks ahead of time and reading from your notes is perfectly acceptable. Have written back-up material for us to read later.

Finally, don’t take defeat personally. I have strong opinions but I am not an ideologue. If we start at polar opposites on an issue and you manage to nudge me a little in your direction, count that as a victory. Thank me for my time and consideration, and I’ll do the same to you. Who knows, the next time we meet we may be allies. But even allies need a level of trust and credibility to be effective together.

Randy DeHoff, a rocket scientist, is the Republican vice-chair of the Colorado State Board of Education, 201 E. Colfax, Suite 506, Denver, CO 80203. E-mail: randydehoff@earthlink.net


Truth and Politics

 

BY ELAINE HOPSON

Educators pride themselves on being good, solid citizens. Having been an educator for 40 years, I voted, I listened to what elected leaders were saying, I participated in the process and I considered myself a stellar citizen.

After being drafted (much to my surprise) into the political arena, I realized how naïve I was in substance and in procedure, and how simplistic were the short courses on “How an idea becomes a law.” From the perspective I now have as an elected official, I will share a few thoughts about the legislative process and how individuals can influence the decisions.

Nothing, including politics, is simple. Legislatures are made up of a wide variety of individuals with varying degrees of interest in and knowledge about the multitude of issues with which they have to deal. But you shouldn’t believe that background knowledge necessarily leads to an informed, rational decision. Even in education, I sometimes found the in-house information accumulated during my 15 years as a superintendent did not always reflect reality, or at least perceived reality.

Even without background information, legislators find no lack of help available to “educate” them on any particular issue. Local, state and national organizations are always ready to unload printed materials and send professional and grassroots lobbyists our way.

 

Truth Always


The role of the lobbyist is extremely important, whether a paid professional or a devoted volunteer. In lobbying, it is advantageous for both kinds—professionals and citizens—to work cooperatively when on the same side of a cause. A united front from within the education community is always preferable, including the school boards, the administrators, the teachers, the support staff and the public.

 

However, on collective bargaining issues, class size mandates, transportation regulations and specific curriculum requirements, groups within the educational community are often divided—and many of those divisions are directly related to funding and the use of resources. Superintendents and boards often want flexibility so they can best use the resources within the district as determined locally. This need for flexibility can sometimes be seen as contrary to what the other educational partners want. In some states, retirement plans have become a large fiscal obligation where the boards want limits and the employees don’t.

One of my first lessons about lobbying was provided by a highly paid, professional lobbyist. He told me that on the whole, lobbyists do not lie to legislators. In order to make their six-figure salaries, lobbyists need access to elected officials. One lie and that access is severed.

I have found his analysis to be true for the most part. In fact, most lobbyists are upfront regarding the fact they are selling one side of the story. Most are more than willing, if not eager, to give me the other side of the story rather than having me hear it only from the other side. Still, hearing both sides of a contested issue from both sides of the fence often proves beneficial to a reasoned analysis of the issue.

 

Political Jockeying


Knowledge is just one part of the equation. Politics is another part about which you have to be aware.

 

During the nation’s economic recession of the past year, most states were in need of additional revenue. In Oregon, many plans were set forth. One bill called for reducing benefits in the Public Employees’ Retirement System in order to save the state from what many thought would be eventual bankruptcy. On the other hand, the vote for this bill would be a vote against public employees who until then had been eligible for these benefits.

Another bill involved a three-year, temporary income tax surcharge. As legislators, we had two options: Refer the proposed law to the people in a statewide referendum or pass it into law ourselves, knowing there was a threat by opponents of the surcharge to refer the issue to the voters, which likely would negate the law’s passage. The latter is exactly what happened: The legislature passed the bill, the governor signed it and the opponents have gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot in February.

Lobbying and voting on these issues was especially difficult as the support and opposition do not follow traditional party positions. A number of Democrats had to vote for the PERS limits in opposition to their customary supporters, the public employee unions. On the other hand, a number of Republicans had to vote in support of a tax increase, against their party’s leadership. This meant that lobbyists had the task of trying to influence everyone and compromises were rampant.

 

Disparate Access


If possible, it is important to establish a personal relationship with the legislators you want to influence. Without some kind of access, your story will not be told to the persons who will be voting. Letters and calls from constituents to whom the legislator has to answer often can be effective.

 

Legislators have relationships with professional lobbyists that vary widely—from referring the lobbyist routinely to a staff assistant to granting a lobbyist full access to you and your office. In my case, one education lobbyist in particular knew he could access me or my office at any time.

An effective lobbyist knows when, where, how and whom to influence to be the most effective on a specific issue. On some issues, there is no point trying to influence a legislator who has made it known he or she will never acquiesce to your point of view. However, good judgment must be used as positions do change.

Whether one is a professional lobbyist or a citizen lobbyist, you must provide accurate information. If possible, both meeting with the legislator and providing written information is often beneficial and effective. As the legislation or situation changes, an effective lobbyist will be on top of the issue and check back with the legislator to alert him or her.

Occasionally lobbyists threaten retaliation for a particular vote. People representing large groups of constituents have been known to claim the ability to lead the people whom they represent to vote against an official in the next election. Such threats may hurt your cause rather than help it. It is hard enough for a legislator to make a decision he or she thinks is right and necessary without having someone express the power to terminate the member’s service to the people. And always remember, the replacement legislator might be worse.

One final thought: Develop a good relationship that allows access and have good information to help the legislator support your position. Most legislators do not know as much about the topic as you do and sincerely want to do what is right in the eyes of the public. You can make a difference.

Elaine Hopson, a former superintendent, is a Democratic state representative in the Oregon legislature. She can be reached at P.O. Box 656, Tillamook, OR 97141. E-mail: rep.elainehopson@state.or.us