Today I participated in “CEA Lobby Day” down at the state capitol, joining an impressive group of teachers and educational support staff from all over the state to ask our elected officials to reduce the amount of state testing and increase state funding for schools. I’m hoping that by writing about it, I can inspire some folks to talk to their elected officials about education (and any other issue about which you are passionate, but yeah, mostly education).
I hopped on the light rail, caught the 16th Street Mall shuttle to the end of the mall, and hoofed it a few blocks to the Colorado Education Association building by 8:00 a.m. They did a good job of filling us in on the main issues currently on the table in the Senate and House, though we didn’t have to know a ton about specific bills, so if you’re intimidated at the prospect of having to know all the ins and outs, you’re off the hook. They mainly wanted us to focus on our stories, like why we love teaching, and how over testing gets in the way. They also explained something going on in ed. funding called the “negative factor,” which is to say basically creating an $800,000,000 I.O.U. from the state coffers to schools instead of meeting the obligation the state constitution mandates for school funding.
They also talked us through the process of lobbying. Trust me, folks, it’s not rocket science:
- You need a business card. If you don’t have business cards, get a few blanks and write your name clearly on one side. We had cards that only had the CEA logo on them, and we hand-wrote our names next to it.
- Figure out which senator or representative you want to talk to. I picked Senator Tim Neville because, well, I like a challenge.
- On one side (the back if they aren’t blank), write Senator _____________ or Representative ______________ and what you wish to talk to him or her about. I wrote, “School assessment and finance.” (Hint: You have to include the title “Senator” or “Representative” before their name.)
- Go to the appropriate chamber on the 3rd floor, clearly marked. People in green blazers are the sergeants-at-arms for the House; those in burgundy are for the Senate. They can help you out.
- There is a sergeant-at-arms posted outside each chamber. Hand him/her your card. (If you did not write “Senator” or “Representative” with the legislator’s name, the sergeant-at-arms will hand the card back to you and make you write it. Take it from me.)
- When there’s a break in the action on the chamber floor, the sergeant-at-arms will send your card in to the person you want to talk to, and hopefully he or she will come out. Our experience was that most did. The sergeant-at-arms will call your name, you’ll introduce yourself to the legislator, and the two of you will step into the hall for a one-on-one chat. Simple as that.
My first impression of Senator Neville: I liked him. He smiled. He was engaging. He seemed very genuine. We spoke first about school testing and the fact that Colorado requires far more tests than the federal minimum. We found instant common ground. He spoke about it as a problem with the government trying to tell states what to do, and frankly, I let it slide. I see it as an issue of non-educators making too many education decisions, which was close enough. We both thought the ACT was quite enough testing at the high school level. Then he launched into the problem being that CEA had been taking “bribes” from the federal government (I assume he meant Race-to-the-Top money) that caused all the testing.
I said that led nicely into the topic of school funding, and that if the state weren’t running such a steep negative factor, we wouldn’t be forced to go to the federal government for money. He countered that there was no money to pay it down because of Hickenlooper’s expansion of Medicaid. (Again, he didn’t refer to any federal program by name, but I assume this was an attack on the Affordable Care Act.) I said that, given the requirements of Medicaid, the state needed to be more creative about finding money for schools, like monies saved by decreasing testing. He replied that there was a voucher bill on the floor this very morning that gave a $1,000 tax break to people sending kids to private schools. I asked him to clarify how this helped, as it actually decreased tax revenues for schools. He said the decrease was modest, and that schools could still get all the remaining money for that student without actually having to provide him with an education. I told him I was confused, since funding is done per student based upon student counts in October, and asked whether he was saying that the bill guaranteed that the monies which would have been spent for that student would still go to public schools. He chuckled and said that a bill cannot mandate future legislators to use monies in a particular way. I pointed out that this meant the voucher bill he was discussing could actually hurt schools, as decreasing the student count costs a school thousands of dollars without cutting costs. He started to argue, but then quickly conceded that a loss of five students might cost a school all that money but would not decrease general overhead. It was nice of him to make the argument for me, as he did, in fact, anticipate exactly what I was going to say.
He clearly needed to get back to the chamber, so I thanked him for his time and recapped that it was good to know that we could reach across the aisle on the testing issue.
Several other teachers there felt he had been aggressive with me, but in all honesty, I thought he was just a spirited debater. It was fun, and I was genuinely glad for the common ground. I hardly expected him to just suddenly say, “By golly, you’re right about that funding issue! Let me get right on that!” We’re going to have to agree to disagree on the Affordable Care Act.
Later I chatted briefly with Representative Brittany Pettersen after a session of the House Education Committee to say “atta girl” to her, as she is already very pro-public schools. She was warm and lovely.
Afterward I grabbed lunch with colleagues and froze my butt off at the education rally on the capitol steps feeling very patriotic and teacherly and generally like a good citizen.
In short, if you ever have the opportunity to participate in an activity like this, go for it!