Wednesday, March 14, 2012

National educators group offers lobbying tips

The American Association of School Administrators, the national association with which the South Carolina Association of School Administrators is affiliated, has published a helpful note on its website on the topic of gaining greater funding for public education.

It is helpful because it reminds educators in South Carolina of two facts: One, public education and its funding is under attack nationwide; and two, it is always valuable for South Carolina's educators to join with, to consider and to consult the experience and expertise of educators in other states. We are, after all, members of a profession, just like physicians, attorneys, architects, accountants and others.

AASA's Noelle Ellerson writes, "Squeezed by four consecutive years of budget cuts as the nation’s greatest recession wears on, our country’s public schools have found themselves operating under increasingly tighter fiscal constraints while facing ever-changing demands and enrollments."

Reductions in financial support to schools at the federal level have compounded cutbacks at the state and local levels, meaning school leaders must stretch every dollar to go further and school districts are doing as much or more with less.

In such a fiscal climate, advocacy for government appropriations — especially knowing how to make a compelling case for continued and increased education funding — has never been a more crucial skill for school system leaders. In any list of advocacy tips, an understanding of the education appropriations process is a proper starting point.

Certainly so. It's not likely that other states have as obtuse a system of school appropriations as South Carolina -- obtuse because although our Education Finance Act clearly dictates the annual base student cost, the legislature chooses annually whether or not it will fulfill its obligation to appropriate that sum -- but it's likely that strategies that have worked elsewhere may be useful here.

On behalf of K-12 schooling, AASA’s advocacy efforts at the federal level are guided by a member-driven legislative agenda, updated annually, that outlines our organization’s federal priorities. The agenda covers a range of topics, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, education technology, the Rural Education Achievement Program and education funding. These policy areas reflect federal legislation, which is grouped into two categories, authorizing language and appropriations language.

Authorizing language is best described as legislation that creates agencies, programs or other government functions. Authorizing language serves the purpose of establishing parameters for government programs and agencies but does not actually fund them.

Appropriations language, on the other hand, is legislative language that actually provides the funding to run the agency or its program. ESEA authorizes federal education programs — Title I, REAP, Ed Tech (officially known as Enhancing Education Through Technology) — that are funded through the federal appropriations process.

Appropriations is an annual process, meaning education leaders and community members have an opportunity each year to make the case for financial support. While federal education dollars represent a small portion of overall education spending in the United States (roughly 8 percent), the funds play a significant role in many school districts, without which the districts would be hard-pressed to maintain programs, services and personnel.

Although, it is worth noting, Congress occasionally appropriates special funding for special purposes, such as last year's funding to protect public education by protecting educators' jobs, and our 49 sister states benefited in that case by our state leaders' stubborn foolishness in refusing to accept those funds -- about $144 million, if memory serves.

The heavy lifting of effective advocacy centers on your ability to build and maintain a viable working relationship with your congressional delegation and their education staffers. Over the years, AASA has developed a few strategies that we see as the foundation to advocacy that works.

Weigh in early, weigh in often. Policy decisions are made whether or not you share your informed voice on a proposal. As public school administrators, you are community and education leaders with direct contact to the community and an important understanding of how federal policy is or is not functioning on a day-to-day basis.

Let's apply that to ourselves. How often have you, as an educator or a parent who supports public education, called and emailed your state representative and state senator to impress upon them the need to support public education funding, and why? Elected lawmakers are fearful of only one thing: Electoral defeat. Telephone calls and emails from large groups of their constituents get their attention; personal visits by groups of their constituents strike fear in their hearts. Don't let them forget that you vote, that they don't permanently own your vote, and that you have opinions and concerns that demand their respect.

Maintain a regular dialogue. While it is good to weigh in when something is urgent or pressing, a more meaningful approach is to maintain an ongoing conversation. It doesn’t have to be daily or weekly. A monthly call or e-mail to your congressional delegation can go a long way.

For maximum impact, I suggest scheduling a weekly five-minute calendar reminder. In the first week, e-mail one of your U.S. senators or their education staffer. In the second week, do the same to your House of Representatives member. During the third week, contact your second senator, and take a break on the fourth week. It is a quick way to point out something that worked well or went wrong relating to a federal initiative. The point is to maintain regular contact with your elected officials in Washington.

Or in Columbia. Even better: Most state legislators have routines -- maybe it's Saturday morning coffee with a gaggle of friends, maybe it's attending church on Sunday. To be most effective, find out their routines, and find out how to become part of them.

Make it real. By building regular conversation with your delegation where you share the ins and outs of how federal policy is functioning at ground level, you and your school district become an anecdote, or the “face” of the policy for your congressional representative. When a policy is proposed or under consideration, the congressional office is inclined to think of the local districts with which they regularly communicate. Why shouldn’t it be your district?

Further, during congressional recesses, invite your representatives and their staff to visit your schools and see firsthand how your district operates.

Here at the state level, our legislators are only in Columbia from January to June, so we've got a full six months to see them in their home districts, and they should have plenty of time to visit schools and classrooms. Isn't it reasonable to ask, since they devise and vote on the budget that funds public schools, that they visit every public school in their district at least once per year? How difficult is that?

And during the legislative session, they all go home on the weekends -- usually they're at home from Friday through Monday -- so we've got plenty to time to find them nearby on the weekends.

Share both the good and the bad. Think about the strongest working relationships you have in your district. Odds are, they are driven largely by open, honest conversation. Certainly, some people share only the most positive, and others speak up whenever they think the sky is falling.

However, the most helpful working relationships balance the developments, and the same can be said of managing your relationships with your congressional delegation. As you reach out to them, don’t hesitate to mix in an example of federal policy with favorable effects (say, emergency dollars that enabled your district to save three teachers’ positions) with something that is not serving your students well (perhaps budgetary pressure from the chronic underfunding of IDEA).

In our case, you might thank lawmakers for not completely zeroing-out the line item for the Education Finance Act. Remember: Think positive!

There's a bit more to the AASA's column, and I encourage readers to check out the rest for themselves, as well as other resources available at the organization's website.

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