The NEA Guide to Activism That Counts
NEA educators share their best tips on how to speak up for public education.
When President Donald Trump and his uniquely unqualified Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos laid out their agenda to divert taxpayer dollars from public education to private school vouchers, they ignited a firestorm among those who believe in the fundamental promise of public education.
Much of what the Trump administration is proposing at the federal level is already being passed at the state and local level. And that’s why:
Local activism is key to winning for students.
Nationwide, there are everyday people who care deeply about their public schools are looking for ways to help defend and improve them. They are educators, parents, students, and other concerned citizens. They are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.
If enough public education supporters act locally, we can win nationally.
What does it mean to speak up for education and kids? Everything you do to stand up for public education helps. Perhaps you are already engaged in online activism and organizing. But the most critical actions you can take will be on the ground and in person, at rallies and protests, at meetings with elected officials, and at any assembly open to citizen input. Local educators have the greatest impact working through their union to earn community support and speak up together.
We spoke to NEA educators from across the country to gather their best advice on becoming an effective advocate for public education. Here’s what they had to say:
Learn how education decisions are made
Sometimes the challenges seem so great and so many, we don’t know where to begin. First, figure out who’s calling the shots on education where you live. How? Attend your local association meetings and check for resources on your state and local education association websites. Keep a copy of our education decision maker cheat sheet, which gives an overview of the role that various state and local officeholders play in shaping education policy.
Make it a priority to attend school board meetings, and keep up with your city council, or other local governing bodies that have a say in education and taxation.
“I have always believed that you have no right to complain if you are not willing to take action. But you can’t take action if you don’t know how things work, and you can’t find out how they work until you get in there and see for yourself,” says Virginia Education Association (VEA) member Dave Palanzi.
Although Palanzi has taught for the past 15 years in Loudoun County, Va., which boasts the nation’s highest median income, he and his colleagues have had to counter attempts by local governing bodies to shortchange schools.
Palanzi has focused on informing a disconnected public. He explains that much of the time, “people simply don’t realize what’s at stake, and when they do, they become natural and powerful allies.”
As a member of his local’s compensation committee, Palanzi began speaking at school board meetings about the education budget. His activism increased as he became more involved in his union and took advantage of trainings offered by VEA. Over the years he’s been inspired to:
- canvass door to door to talk about schools and pro-public education candidates, and train teachers from across the country to have those conversations;
- organize members to discuss the issues with local residents at festivals and farmers’ markets;
- write letters to the editor of local papers to encourage parents to pay attention to the budget;
- speak to elected officials to tell them that they need to fully fund schools for our students, teachers, and community;
- participate in local and state rallies;
- and mentor emerging activists and leaders of the Loudoun Education Association.
“My path to activism could serve as a model for other NEA members—not because it is particularly brilliant or difficult to execute, but precisely because these are all things that the average member can do,” says Palanzi.
- Find several ways to stay informed about local and state decisions that affect your school. Subscribe to EdVotes and follow your state and local education association as well as elected leaders on social media.
- EXTRA CREDIT: Find contact information for your elected leaders, and add them to your mobile contacts. Check out Facebook’s Town Hall feature, which helps you easily connect with the people who represent you.
Engage the broader community
“We need the entire community to know the depth of our commitment to the success of all students,” says Selena Valdez, an elementary teacher at Serna Elementary in San Antonio, Texas, who serves as president of the North East Education Association.
“The more people understand that we are not in this profession for ‘summers off,’ and they see us reaching out to them and participating in marches alongside them, they see that our intentions are aligned with theirs.”
The stronger the educator-community connection is, the more it can benefit students, says Valdez, who was named NEA’s Political Activist of the Year in 2017. “These community members are then eager to stand with educators when it comes to policy issues that have a negative impact on educators, or ultimately on their children.”
Earning the community’s trust and support through face-to-face conversation, combined with online activism, is how educators in Nevada cut off funding for the state’s voucher program. It’s how educators in Maryland, Washington, and Colorado curbed excessive standardized testing in recent years. And it’s how Georgia and Massachusetts educators helped to score stunning defeats of measures that would have let charter schools run amok.
- Strengthen the bond between educators and your community before there’s an emergency. Invite an educator to speak to your faith or community group about what they see in their classroom, and how policies can help or exacerbate problems. Invite local community leaders into your classroom so they can learn about your students, even as your students are learning what they do.
Tell your story
Let’s be frank: Most lawmakers don’t know much about what you do, or how the barriers your students face inside and outside of the classroom affect their learning.
When speaking to an elected official or their staff (or potential voters, for that matter) about policy, help them see how your students and colleagues are directly affected.
“We need to be able to talk to our elected leaders about what’s actually occurring at the local level in our schools and how their policies affect our students,” says Iowa teacher Joshua Brown. “Our stories resonate with citizens and lawmakers alike.”
Brown teaches global studies at Goodrell Middle School, where 70 percent of students are from low-income families. He speaks proudly about the sometimes surprising connections his students make to other cultures, even if they’ve never travelled far beyond their hometown of Des Moines.
But Brown also has something to say about how students are affected by excessive standardized testing. And those are stories his state and local policymakers need to hear.
Educators consistently rank as one of society’s most trusted messengers. Along with parents, no one knows better what students need to succeed.
You should share your story whether you are communicating verbally or in writing. But remember, face-to-face conversations are still the most potent tool for engaging others.
- Start at square one: Practice introducing yourself in a clear, concise manner: “My name is ___ and I’m a _____ at _______ School.”
- EXTRA CREDIT: Create an opportunity to talk to a decision maker about the effects proposed budget cuts, deepening inequities, or vouchers could have on your students.
Inspire with a vision of what public schools can be
Sadly, many educators have been so beleaguered by attacks on their schools and their profession that there hasn’t been much opportunity to remind folks of what our schools should be.
When you have the floor—whether it’s in your neighbors’ dining room or in the office of your state representative—remind your audience what well-resourced schools should look like: Inviting classrooms headed up by highly qualified educators; reasonable class sizes that allow for one-on-one attention; a well-rounded curriculum; and after school programs that provide additional learning opportunities. Challenge others to think about equity by asking: “Why can’t all our schools look like our best schools? Why does the quality of education so often vary by ZIP code?”
Locals around the nation are forcing education policymakers to address such questions by involving their communities in the bargaining process. It’s a concept known as Bargaining for the Common Good.
The Sacramento City Teachers Association went into collective bargaining this year “with a clear vision of a ‘destination district’ that families want their kids to attend,” says Nikki Milevsky, President of the Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA). That vision grew out of community input.
First, SCTA determined the top concerns about schools among local parents. Then they got more union members involved in the bargaining process.
“Not only is the process now more transparent with more communication through widely dispersed team members, the team itself is also far more diverse in terms of age, race, and gender.” Milevsky says.
Their hard work over dozens of bargaining sessions resulted in a contract that promises real change for students. There will be no testing in the district beyond what is mandated by the state or federal government. The district will also institute restorative discipline practices that replace punishment with meaningful accountability and lower suspension rates, a top concern among parents.
- Ask yourself: What do the best schools in your district have that your struggling schools don’t?
- EXTRA CREDIT: Practice talking about your vision for great schools so you’re ready to do the same in front of members of your community and elected leaders.
Help candidates who support public schools
Educators are reliable voters. But your neighbors, friends, and even your own family members might not understand how much is at stake in your local school board election or the governor’s race. It’s up to you to fill them in.
“Education is political—there is no way around it,” says Jason Fahie, a health and physical education teacher in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County School District. “We elect the people who have a say in how much money goes to our school district, or if we will get a raise.”
Election outcomes can profoundly impact what students study, the resources their schools will have to help them learn, and the amount of one-on-one attention they receive over the course of their education.
How did Fahie get started in electoral campaigns? When his local endorsed a candidate in a county executive election in 2014, Fahie volunteered to make phone calls and knock on doors.
“It was great to unite with my colleagues in support of a candidate,” he recalls.
- Turn to your state and local NEA affiliates to find out about recommended candidates, and how you can help get them into office.
Stay in it for the long haul
Fighting for public education will never be a one-win battle.
After all, every election brings a new wave of policymakers who need to be schooled on the issues that matter to educators, parents, and students. Every state legislative session or even a single school board meeting could bring changes to how your schools are run and funded.
Michigan math teacher Wendy Winston advocates for her students regularly whether she’s attending a town hall or a school board meeting, or posting the latest information about bills that are coming up in the legislature.
One of the hardest things to do, Winston says, is to hold officials accountable once they’re elected. Her strategy is to stay informed on the issues as they turn from political platforms into bills and policies.
“We must not assume that things are going to be taken care of correctly without input from educators,” says Winston. “If you check out of the process after the election, then you’re definitely not holding anyone accountable, and that creates the chance that something that you don’t approve of will actually go forward.”
“Elected officials need to know that people are watching and that constituents are paying attention.”
- Reach out to an elected leader who represents you. Share your story. Let them know what they have done well, where they’ve failed schools, and what you expect from them during their remaining time in office.
Here are some more words of inspiration from NEA members across the country who became politically active over the course of their careers:
“Several years ago, educators banded together to inform our community about the so-called reformers who had taken over our school board. We had a lot of conversations about why this was a danger for our schools. All that hard work was worth it. Not only did we oust those “reformers” and win seats for pro-public education candidates, we made connections with so many people who care as much as we do about our schools.”
–-Jana Lewis, education support professional, Stansberry Elementary, Loveland, Colo.
“There are people who have never been educators making choices for our students that aren’t always what’s best for them. As educators, we know our students, our schools, and what’s good for our children and communities. But if educators aren’t involved, we can’t make a difference.”
—Kaileigh Schippa, future educator, Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, Mich.
“In education you learn very quickly that it doesn’t really matter who gets credit for the job, it’s getting the job done that’s important… And getting the job done means putting public education back on its feet.”
–Karen Gaddis, retired teacher and State Representative, Tulsa, Oklahoma
“Educators have a responsibility to fight injustices when we see them, for those who are unable to fight them, and for others who cannot yet see them. By changing unjust conditions, and by educating, modeling, advocating, and motivating, we empower others to join us in making change.”
–-Scott Launier, University of Central Florida, Orlando
“The 2012 Kansas legislative election is when I really dug in and knew my role had to intensify to make an impact. I moved from writing a few postcards and letters to the editor to canvassing door-to-door, writing thousands of postcards, making hundreds of calls, and making campaign appearances with recommended candidates.”
—Anna Moon Bradley, language arts teacher, West Franklin High School, Pomona, Kansas