Policy Watch: Educators Can Teach Lawmakers What Our Students Need
It’s no secret to educators that students are not meeting literacy benchmarks. A recent report on reading performance from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that 63 percent of students in 4th grade are reading at a “basic” or “below basic” level.
As the legislative outreach director for a non-profit organization focused on preventing summer reading losses, I frequently talk with policymakers. The good news is that everyone—legislators, governors, educators, and families—understands the gravity of the situation and wants to improve it. Unfortunately, when it comes time to allocate money to help address the problem, literacy becomes just one more challenge among many in need of funding.
To make sure literacy initiatives are in the best position to get the resources they need, educators and their allies must position themselves as constructive partners to policymakers. As a former teacher with 23 years in the classroom myself, I understand that educating young students leaves little time for legislative advocacy. But there is still room for educators to make their voices heard and get their students’ needs met by lending policymakers their expertise, making use of the organizations devoted to supporting education, and treating lawmakers as allies.
Setting the Tone
The first thing educators can do to positively affect education policy may not be the most practical from a nuts-and-bolts perspective. It’s not going to bring money into the budget today, but it must inform everything else we do to work with lawmakers. To effect legislative change, educators must support legislators.
Lawmakers are easy targets for negative attention. By and large, particularly at the state level, these people give up a lot of their lives to devote themselves to public service without much pay—and then they get bashed constantly.
One way to support them is to stay up-to-date on legislation that affects schools and let your legislators know your views. State legislatures usually have a listserv or newsletter service anyone can subscribe to that will keep you abreast of committee hearings and legislation proposals. For legislative and policy movement specific to literacy, the National Summer Literacy Association and International Literacy Association are also fantastic resources.
If we want lawmakers’ support for education funding, educators and their allies must support these public servants when they can and communicate the need in a positive and healthy way. Position yourself as an ally, here to inform them and help to create meaningful and effective education policy. They’ll be a lot more eager to work with you than with someone only offering yet more of the criticism they so frequently receive.
Doing What You Do Best: Educate!
One of the biggest challenges I see with legislatures as they struggle with education policy and funding is finding the balance between supporting educators and telling them how to do their jobs. Often, policy-makers are not informed as deeply as their policy tends to reach. When lawmakers reach out to practitioners in developing new policy, everyone wins. That doesn’t mean every teacher needs to take on an unpaid second job as a legislative consultant, however.
Educators can also work to inform the lawmaking process through letter-writing campaigns, phone calls to legislators, and task forces composed of teachers and allies that visit lawmakers ready to talk about what students and teachers need.
Teachers can also invite lawmakers into their classrooms to see firsthand how legislation affects teaching and learning. Or, better yet, school or district leadership can invite lawmakers in to see policy effects across the organization, perhaps with a meeting between lawmakers and educators who have a particular interest in affecting policy.
Tapping Your Interest Groups
Bringing lawmakers into the classroom may be a powerful step toward building constructive relationships and informing lawmakers, but it’s not always practical to do routinely. Fortunately, schools have powerful allies and interest groups already built into their community. All they have to do is tap them.
We all know parents will go to the mat for their children, and that passion can translate quite seamlessly into tenacious advocacy for legislation policy. Keep them up-to-date on policy proposals in your regular communications with them, such as newsletters or regular social media posts. If you let them know when legislation is under consideration, why it’s important to your students, and how to contact the relevant lawmakers, many of them will likely make their voices—and by extension your voice—heard.
For family members who want to get involved in a more structured way, the parent teacher organization at your school is a ready-made interest group with local chapters feeding into state and even national organizations. The infrastructure and a wealth of experience working toward legislative change are already there, just waiting to be put to use making a better world for students.
Schools and related organizations can also band together to take collective action on legislation. In Washington State, for example, School’s Out Washington, a group of allied programs that serves children after school or during breaks, has banded together to address the legislature as a unified group. Another group in Washington, The Rural Alliance, is a consortium of schools in the rural eastern half of the state that have joined together for the same purpose.
It can feel hopeless to think that nearly two-thirds of our students are not reading proficiently by 4th grade. The good news is that there’s plenty of room for improvement. The better news is that our lawmakers are eager to help. The best news is that we have an eager and dedicated community around every school that is ready to encourage and support them in delivering that help.
About the Author
Glen Miller, a former educator of 23 years, is the legislative outreach director for Kids Read Now, a non-profit organization that offers a turn-key summer reading program proven effective by a study at the University of Wisconsin Center for Education Research. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.