Guest post by Mark Whitaker
Politics and public education have an interesting relationship. Various political groups use the public schools as a battleground to sort out legal and social issues, politicians champion or decry public education as part of a larger political platform, and state and federal legislatures pass laws and allocate funds based on their perceptions and opinions of public education.
Like many of you, I sit back and watch these happenings with various emotions—sometimes amusement, sometimes anger. Beyond sending an email to my local representative voicing support for various bills, I’ve never done much to advocate for public education.
That all changed this past year. As the Utah Middle School Principal of the Year, I had the opportunity to meet with lawmakers at both the state and federal levels. It was an enlightening experience. I learned that our elected representatives need—and even want—administrators’ insights and expertise as they formulate legislation, allocate funds, and make decisions. Here are 10 tips for advocating effectively:
1. Understand the reasons you should be advocating. The primary reason you should make your voice heard is because state legislators and federal delegates make decisions that affect you, your employees, and your students.
2. Lawmakers are regular folks like you and me. Those at the state level have jobs beyond their legislative responsibilities. Most do not write their own legislation, but sponsor bills that are proposed to them. Providing constructive feedback or criticism on the language of these bills is not going to personally offend them and may help them as they amend the wording of the proposed bills.
3. Most lawmakers have a keen interest in public education. True, some are interested because they see it as a failed system in need of reform and mandates, but most are open to solutions and perspectives shared by those of us in the trenches.
4. Your voice is powerful, and the voice of an individual person can have an impact on how people vote. While the voice of one can be significant, the voice of a collective group of individuals is even more impactful.
5. Get informed. Make sure you understand the issues, the legislation, the costs, and the potential effects of funding and legislation. NASSP monitors upcoming issues and legislation for you. Use their research and expertise. It will help you understand the issues and save you time.
6. Don’t advocate for unrealistic or unnecessary legislation. Our needs have to fit into the big picture of everything else that is going on in the state or country. Frances K. Neal, an education policy adviser for the U.S. Senate, says to invest your time and energy into issues that have the greatest impact on student learning and are likely to gain the support necessary to be successful.
7. Make a pitch and ask for something. Legislators won’t have a great deal of time to read emails or engage in lengthy meetings. Be brief and direct in your communication. Amanda Karhuse, director of advocacy for NASSP, recommends that you clearly articulate what you want, why you think it is important, and what the impact will be.
8. Invest in relationships. Get to know your lawmakers, as well as other professionals who have common interests and goals. Building networks and coalitions can lead to better understanding and more efficient advocacy.
9. Thank them. Follow up with an email or personal note thanking your representatives for their time, even if they disagreed with your stance or made a decision that was not aligned with what you thought was best for students. If their vote aligned with your philosophy, thank them and encourage others to thank them, says Karhuse.
10. Offer yourself as a resource. Let your representative know you are anxious to help whenever and wherever possible. For example, after meeting with one of Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s staffers, he immediately emailed me with questions about the Common Core and wanted my opinions and insight. He did this because I told him I would be glad to answer any future questions he may have about education. In addition to encouraging people to ask you questions, invite them to your school to see what your day is like, and invite them to student activities and other school events to see what benefits various programs provide to students.
As school leaders, we have the unique opportunity to influence the political landscape of education. What successes or failures have you had when advocating for public education?
Mark Whitaker serves as the principal of Mountain Ridge Junior High, one of the highest-performing junior high schools in the great state of Utah. He considers it a privilege and a blessing to work with such wonderful students, parents, and teachers. He is the 2016 Utah Middle School Principal of the Year.