How to lobby effectively for school technology

Supporters of education reform and increased funding for school technology should make their voices heard on Capitol Hill, but they must make sure their efforts are carefully targeted, on point, respectful, and professional: Those were the key messages delivered during two separate events held just days apart in Washington, D.C.

At a presentation during the American Association of School Administrators’ annual Legislative Advocacy Conference on April 20, attendees learned how to communicate as effectively as possible with members of Congress as they state their case for changes to the federal No Child Left Behind Act and other school-reform efforts. Two days later, supporters of school technology received many of the same lessons at an event hosted by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

The lessons learned during both events can be applied to any education advocacy efforts–but they’re especially timely in light of renewed ed-tech criticism. And though they refer to federal and state lobbying efforts in particular, these lessons are equally useful for lobbying school boards and other key decision-making institutions.

Nearly 80 ed-tech leaders from more than 20 U.S. states convened in Washington April 22 for the first-ever ISTE State Advocacy Capacity-Building Conference, which focused on developing relationships with state policy makers, leveraging conferences and other events, and using communications tools to lobby effectively for state-level policies, programs, and funding for school technology. Most participants, and many of the presenters, were members of ISTE’s state affiliate organizations.

Following this grassroots advocacy event, members of ISTE and other leading ed-tech groups took to Capitol Hill April 23 and 24 to meet with their Congressional representatives during a two-day federal Educational Technology Policy Summit. The summit was a joint project of ISTE, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), and the North American Council for Online Learning.

The timing of the event was significant, as Congress considers next year’s federal education budget and looks to reauthorize NCLB. Federal funding for school technology has dropped sharply over the last few years, SETDA notes in a new report–from $635 million in fiscal year 2004 to $272 million last year.

Despite this decline, there has never been a better time for educators, technology directors, and others to make their case to lawmakers, said Don Knezek, ISTE’s chief executive.

As national attention shifts to the new global economy and America’s precarious hold on economic preeminence, Knezek noted, the issue of school technology fits nicely inside the confines of more politically popular conversations about global competitiveness and the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

“We no longer have to lead by advocating for technology,” he said. Now, educators who come to Capitol Hill in search of ed-tech funding can begin their conversations by talking about issues of central importance–issues that “require the use of educational technology,” said Knezek.

Whereas the issue of technology’s role in boosting student achievement still is a topic for debate in some political circles, he said, no one openly refutes technology’s importance to the future economy.

“There is a real difference between improving students’ test scores in math and science and improving how they live and work in the real world,” noted Knezek. “If we want to be competitive, if we want to make that commitment, than we have to move to more modern and digital learning environments.”

Jill Pierce, director of technology for the Loudon County, Tenn., Board of Education and a member of the Tennessee Educational Technology Association, an ISTE affiliate organization, said she came to Washington for the opportunity to speak with elected officials about the importance of federal ed-tech funding.

“Federal funding for important programs such as the eRate and E2T2 [Enhancing Education Through Technology, the state educational technology block-grant program] are vital for rural school systems,” Pierce said.

But politicians don’t necessarily know that, she said, adding: “They’ve got to hear it from the people in the trenches.”

With so much information on so many pieces of legislation swirling through the halls of Congress on a daily basis, Pierce said, it’s difficult for elected officials to cultivate an expert’s understanding of the issues.

But by visiting Capitol Hill and talking with members of Congress and their staffs, she said, educators can make these issues more personal for lawmakers–explaining how programs such as the eRate and E2T2 are critical to their local communities and, importantly, their children.

“I think the No. 1 issue is to talk about the kids,” she said.

Though this was her first major advocacy event in Washington, Pierce said she was encouraged by the willingness of elected officials to hear and listen to her concerns. “I was very impressed with how receptive they were,” she said. “I really, truly believe that they want to do right for education.”

But they need educators’ help, she said–and that’s why it’s important for educators to take advantage of programs offered by groups such as ISTE, CoSN, and others. By working with these advocacy groups, Pierce said, educators can combine their understanding of the classroom with effective communications strategies to deliver messages that are targeted, on point, and–if all goes well–effective.

Making noise–versus making a difference

Although the internet and eMail have made it easier than ever for voters to connect with their representatives in Congress, Washington insiders say educators should use discretion when articulating their concerns to elected officials.

“Members [of Congress] tell us that they do feel communications are important to keeping their fingers on the pulse of the districts they represent,” said Kathy Goldschmidt, deputy director of the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), in a presentation to school administrators at AASA’s Legislative Advocacy Conference on April 20. But, given the vast amount of electronic information streaming into Congressional offices on a daily basis–some Senate offices have reported receiving as many as 50,000 eMail messages from constituents in a single week–educators need to be selective in their lobbying approach, she added.

“There’s a difference between making noise and being heard,” said Goldschmidt. “It’s a little like walking through the monkey house at the zoo–a lot of noise, but not a whole lot of meaning.”

Goldschmidt’s organization poses a number of strategies that education advocates can, and should, employ to make their communications stand out.

Though elected officials are doing a better job of embracing technology as a form of communication, she said, it’s up to constituents to craft their messages with enough care and intelligence to get them noticed.

In all cases, Goldschmidt said, Congressional communications should target undecided representatives; combine several different advocacy strategies, including face-to-face meetings and print and online campaigns; be timely; and, perhaps most importantly, be personal.

When composing messages to Congress, CMF recommends that every message should come from a constituent. Each message should be timely and sent when it’s likely to have the most impact, such as before a major vote or committee meeting. Messages also should be well-informed, demonstrating that the writer has taken the time to research the issue and understands his or her representative’s stance on it.

In addition, CMF said, all messages should include the name or affiliation of the constituent and should be sent only to members of Congress who are in a position to do something about the issue at hand.

Among the most effective forms of communication, according to CMF research, are face-to-face visits with members of Congress or their staffs and the drafting of personalized letters or eMails, including personal anecdotes and stories about how certain pieces of legislation are affecting the local community.

Conversely, CMF says, the least effective way to reach out to Congress is through the creation of mass mailings or electronic form letters.

Goldschmidt said members of Congress and their staff have complained that form letters are untrustworthy and often lack the emotional pull necessary to sway lawmakers on divisive issues.

“There is a little science about getting in touch with Capitol Hill,” said Goldschmidt. “But more than anything, it’s about being genuine … about getting your message heard.”

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