States' Top Teachers Went to Capitol Hill to Lobby for Education
On Wednesday, dozens of state teachers of the year were at the Capitol here, armed with talking points, compelling stories from their districts, and a fierce determination to protect education funding.
Following the National Network of State Teachers of the Year's annual conference this week, the teachers had set up about 80 meetings with senators and representatives in Congress.
Teachers have been meeting with their representatives for years, but this year, the stakes seemed higher—on the same day as the teachers' visit to Capitol Hill, the House appropriations committee approved a funding bill which would cut $2.4 billion from the U.S. Department of Education. Title II, federal money that is used for teacher professional development and class-size reduction, is on the chopping block entirely.
Justin Minkel, the chairman of the NNSTOY government affairs committee and the 2007 Arkansas State Teacher of the Year (as well as a columnist for Education Week Teacher), met with a few members of Congress from his state's delegation with varying degrees of success.
For example, he met with Republican Sen. John Boozman's top two education aides. (Boozman was on the Senate floor.) "They were so respectful, they really listened, took a ton of notes—it felt like a partnership that would continue," Minkel said.
But then he met with another representative's office, and the aides didn't ask any questions or take any notes.
"It seemed like a token thing," Minkel said.
Minkel was pushing items from NNSTOY's federal policy agenda—like preserving federal funding for Title II, supporting students from undocumented families, and making sure teachers are involved in the implementation of ESSA. Minkel has been involved in drafting the Teachers and Parents at the Table Act, which would establish advisory committees of teachers and parents to give input about education policy to federal lawmakers and the Secretary of Education.
Minkel said the representatives and aides were mostly receptive to his points. But one of the arguments from a legislative aide was that even if education funding is cut, it would still be considered a win if the cuts aren't as big as the president asked for in his budget proposal.
"That's troubling," Minkel said. "[The president] is giving them cover, in a way," to enact budget cuts.
NNSTOY has also warned against diverting federal money from public schools in an expansion of school choice—few of the group's members support vouchers. Politics K-12 reported last week that prospects for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' major school choice initiatives seemed dim this year.
Minkel had a similar sense: "I didn't hear today any real appetite for Betsy DeVos' vision, even from the Republicans, and I think it's because she's so out of touch with public education." Representatives, Minkel said, seemed to understand that DeVos' school choice initiatives would have major implications for already cash-strapped districts.
The day before the teachers went to the Capitol, Anne Holton, the former Virginia education secretary and a member of the state board of education, spoke to them at the NNSTOY conference. Holton is married to Sen. Tim Kaine, who ran as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2016.
She gave the teachers some lobbing tips in advance of their trip to the Capitol.
"I'm using that word [lobbying] on purpose because I don't think it's a dirty word," she said. "Lobbyist doesn't mean you have to lobby on behalf of special interests. You're the good kind: You're lobbying on behalf of students and families across the country."
- Know what you want. Do your homework, and come up with a concrete proposal, Holton said.
- Know what your target wants. "Education can be a very, very bipartisan endeavor," she said. It's important to know the legislator's priorities and background.
- Be concise. "In Virginia, you never give a legislator more than one page," Holton said.
- Build alliances. "You absolutely cannot do this work alone," she said, mentioning that in Virginia, the business community became a valuable partner in education budget talks.
- Be yourself. "Feel free to be authentically you," Holton said, urging teachers to share their experiences and stories from their school district with legislators.
- Be flexible. You can't get everything you want—be willing to compromise.
Holton also injected a lesson from the 2016 campaign trail: "Everybody in the world basically is an expert on education," she said, laughing. "Everybody has an education initiative that's going to fix everything—as long as they can get funding for it."
For more pieces of advice for teachers interested in policy, here are 10 other lessons the founder of Teach Plus shared at the NNSTOY conference.