Bey-Ling Sha is president of the Language Academy Parent Teacher Student Association. She was in Sacramento last week lobbying lawmakers on education. The views expressed here are her own, not those of her school or parent group. You can contact her at email@example.com or just post a comment on the blog.
I learned a lot last week while participating in a legislative conference and lobbying with the California State Parent Teacher Association: The history of state funding for education. The economics of taxing and spending. The selling of societal needs (like good public education) as unaffordable wants. The (foreign) language arts involved in writing a budget bill. The engineering of consensus among politicians with diverse views. The math of getting to a two-thirds majority vote on anything budget-related. The impact of term limits on the psychology of elected lawmakers.
Because I’m a diligent student, I took notes, and here are the main lessons I learned about this game:
Pay Attention. People who care about education need to keep an eye on what their elected representatives are doing in Sacramento. Read the newspapers, know who your own representatives are , and check out lawmakers’ websites.
Raise Your Hand. It’s not enough to just watch the show. People need to speak up and object when lawmakers aren’t funding education properly. Not everyone can visit the capitol, but anyone can make a phone call, send an email or write a letter. Your representatives can’t know what you want unless you tell them.
Do Your Homework. Saying what you want is easy, but no one in Sacramento will take your demands seriously unless you’ve done your homework. Know what bills are being considered by state legislators. Read up on objective, non-partisan education research. Also, look at upcoming ballot initiatives and understand how they affect education funding. One reason we’re in this mess today is that Californians in 1978 voted for Prop. 13 without understanding its implications for funding public services like education.
Participate in Activities. Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and do some real work. Armchair activism only takes you so far. You need to visit legislators’ offices in your area, attend public meetings, go to rallies, march on Sacramento. Legislators know that education is the foundation of California’s future. But, they need your encouragement to make good decisions for the long term, not just for their term in office.
Respect Others. Even if you disagree with lawmakers or others as you participate in activities, you can make your points in a polite way. For anyone who is wondering, I did manage to bite my tongue while meeting in lawmakers’ offices, even though I did not always smile. (Hey, you try smiling with your teeth on your tongue!)
Respect Yourself. If your lawmakers don’t listen to you or if they don’t take your concerns seriously, you should have enough self-respect to refuse taking that kind of treatment. If using your voice does not get results, then you need to use your vote.
These lessons sound familiar because we all learned them from grown-ups when we were kids. Now, we are the adults, and the kids of California are depending on us to save their future, which is also our own.
One last story. In the capitol building last Monday, I met a group of eighth-graders from McKinley Institute of Technology. They were with algebra teacher Dennis Keane, who was starting his last week on the job. Why? Because mid-year cuts at Redwood City School District in San Mateo County meant that young teachers like Mr. Keane were being let go. His class would be passed on to a sports coach with seniority in the school system.
When asked how she felt about losing her teacher, student Jenine said, “Very disappointed, just very disappointed. Very emotional. We’re in the middle of learning new stuff.”
Me, too, Jenine. Me, too.
I’m tempted to encourage all the school groups visiting Sacramento to skip the Capitol tour and instead march on lawmakers offices with pitchforks and burning torches to demand adequate education funding. But these days, that would just get the kids arrested for terrorism.
Then again, the state spends about $200,000 per year for each kid in the juvenile justice system, compared to only about $5,000 per year for each kid in school. Now, that is an interesting lesson, don’t you think?
— BEY-LING SHA