For the past few years I have advocated with the Washington Coalition for Gifted Education on an equity bill for “highly capable” programs. The bill mandates universal screening in districts for gifted learners and strengthens teacher preparation. It eliminates Saturday evaluations for program placements, and mandates transportation to cohort/magnet programs. The bill hasn’t passed yet, though it had very strong support in our State Senate and in the House, where it stalled in a committee in 2019. Following are lessons learned from working with legislators.
#1 Work with a group. It is not easy, so share the load. For example, in the Coalition one of us gathers relevant information, research, and news articles, and sends them out to the membership. Another has found other organizations to be our partners. Still another tracks the bill and informs the group when there are hearings. I have worked with my own and other legislators in my region.
The author with State Representative Brandon Vick
# 2 Contact legislators when they are not in session. In Washington the legislature is typically in session from January to June. Find your representatives’ contact information online and request a meeting. Out of session, the meeting is casual and is held in places like a coffee shop! (Dress should be appropriate to the meeting place.)
When legislators are out of session, they regularly schedule meetings with constituents. Many block out full days in their calendars to do so. This is also a time when they work with each other. My representatives meet with other legislators in our region who share common interests to strategize and to lobby each other on issues important to them. They also recruit other legislators from across the state and across the aisle to work with them – particularly when they know this colleague has a personal interest.
During the session they are busy with the work of the people who have spent time with them on the issues. Dropping in on a legislator to lobby when the legislature is in session is akin to a parent calling or walking into a classroom at mid-day to talk with the teacher about her student while the teacher is teaching. It shows zero respect for the work the teacher is doing in the classroom – and it is conflicting for the teacher who knows parent input is important. If you must see a legislator during the session, make an appointment.
#3 When you meet with a legislator or testify before a committee, be prepared. State precisely what you need, and support it with your story or expertise – and a handout. Share information with your representatives regarding any support you have. This would include other legislators, as well as other organized groups. One on our team garnered the support of both the teachers union and the state PTA for our bill. This is important for legislators to know.
#4 Think carefully about changing a bill that is in play. Our legislature has long sessions used to pass budgets, among other things. On alternate years, short sessions typically pick up unfinished work from longer sessions. Changing a popular bill is a good example of perfection being the enemy of good. Chances of a changed bill passing into law decrease significantly during short sessions. Necessary changes should be done well in advance of legislative sessions.
Any time a bill is changed, prime sponsors in both chambers need to be brought into the loop. They do not have time to even look at emails or texts from people who are not one of their known colleagues or constituents during legislative sessions. Therefore, have one of their constituents make this notification. Reputations are at stake as they work with their colleagues. If they are unaware of changes in their own bill, they will be blindsided. Another reason to contact a legislator during a session is the significant development of either support or a roadblock. Again, it is best to have the constituent, or another legislator, make the notification – probably over email or with a call to an aide.
#5 Never give up. If it matters, stick with it. It can take years. We are still working on getting our equity bill passed. It has a weak chance in the upcoming session because our representatives have to deal with fall-out from Covid-19 including serious revenue and budget issues. We will stay the course. It has gained steam from the recent equity issues in the national spotlight. If not this session, then next!
The author at home with State Senator Ann Rivers