It seems every year, school districts across the country are having to deal with new policies, laws and regulations from either the federal or state policy makers, or often, both. This was true before COVID, and the sheer number of additional pieces of legislation, often in conflict, between state and local lawmakers, have only increased. It’s stunning that despite the significant role state legislators, members of Congress, governors and presidents play in K-12 national education, a sizable number of educators choose not to vote each year. Perhaps even more stunning, many school districts do not engage lawmakers in helping to direct or guide policy work that could translate into more effective legislation.
It does not have to be that way. Below are some suggested ways school leaders can proactively connect with state and federal officials:
1. Ensure that in your district’s organizational structure there is a dedicated focus on government affairs. This is essential, not only to have someone who is monitoring evolving legislation in real time that might impact the district, but also to have someone who can start to make connections with policy makers before legislation is passed. While many larger school districts actually create Government Affairs Divisions, smaller districts can charge this important task to the Communications Department.
2. Engage the Board in creating a legislative platform. It’s critical to have the district’s point of view and advocacy on key legislative priorities documented and known prior to sessions at the state level beginning. The platform can speak to issues around funding, curriculum decisions, local control or any number of key priorities. It’s always beneficial to see if the school district platform can align with state education organizations, as that shared advocacy has a greater chance to translate into legislative successes. Once the platform is crafted, it should be shared with key lawmakers at the state and federal level.
3. Set up meetings with lawmakers prior to and during state legislative sessions. Timing is everything and waiting until a bill is almost assured of passing is not the optimal time to introduce yourself to lawmakers. Taking time in off-session periods to invite lawmakers out to your districts, to visit schools and understand your challenges and opportunities is a huge investment that can really yield benefits. It’s important to make these connections and not go into initial meetings about motives or positions you believe a lawmaker might have. If you invite a lawmaker to a function with an audience, make sure to introduce them and thank them for taking time to attend.
4. Resist doing things that publicly call out lawmakers; especially if you have not first shared the concern with them. With the plethora of legislation that can pass in a session, there are bound to be bills that have a less than positive impact on some facet of your district. It’s important to reach out to your delegation, explain why the bill may have had some unintended impacts and offer to work to resolve these issues. While it might be that the impacts of the legislation were known and there may be unavoidable disagreement between school leaders and policymakers, it’s best to “go public” after all attempts to resolve the issue have been exhausted.
School districts are state agencies and therefore greatly impacted by the work done in state capitols and Washington, DC. Being proactive rather than reactive in engaging lawmakers can prove an incredibly valuable use of school leaders time and focus.