Amateur Lobbyists Key Foot Soldiers on the Hill

By Julie A. Miller — October 25, 1989 4 min read

Washington--All of the major education organizations employ lobbyists to champion their views on Capitol Hill. But some of the most effective education advocates are not professionals.

When the House was girding for a key vote on child-care legislation early this month, for example, the Hill was invaded by some 200 teachers airlifted in by the National Education Association.

The nea’s Washington staff identified House members critical to the outcome of the vote, including those playing key roles in the debate and those thought to be undecided. The union then flew in “Congressional contact teams” from their home districts--at the national union’s expense.

“They created a significant amount of visibility in a short period of time,” said Michael Edwards, manager of Congressional relations for the nea “By the time they voted, very few members of Congress had not had the child-care debate and our position raised several notches in their consciousness.”

“It’s hard to say what might have made the difference on that particular vote,” said an Education and Labor Committee aide who worked on the measure. “But the nea’s ‘swat teams’ are notorious--and I’d say pretty effective.”

“It must be working,” Mr. Edwards said, “because I get calls from members asking us if we will use the contact teams to help their legislation.”

‘Home-Washington Connection’

No other education group has a lobbying network as extensive and aggressively employed as that of the nea--and other groups do not pay the amateurs’ expenses. But they all recognize the value of having constituents contact lawmakers.

“We find that in any Congressional office where we are really successful and they really listen to us, it’s because they have ties to administrators back home who come and see them regularly,” said Bruce Hunter, director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators.

Much of the lobbying done by association members takes place at home, where they keep in frequent contact with their representatives by telephoning them, visiting their district offices, inviting them to school functions, and directing letter-writing campaigns at them.

But it is also important “to make that home-Washington connection,” as Mr. Edwards put it.

To Learn and Lobby

Some education groups bring members to Washington every year for “legislative conferences,” at which they listen to speakers from the Congress and the Education Department as well as lobby.

State officials, administrators, and school-board members interviewed at such conferences gave similar answers when they were asked why they came: to learn what is going on in Washington that could affect them back home, and to ensure that their views are heard.

“Much of what happens to our schools is out of our control,” explained Nicholas Caruso, a member of the Bloomfield, Conn. school board. ''Congress invokes legislative mandates at the expense of districts and we’re excluded from the process.”

Both the National School Boards Association and the aasa schedule their major lobbying campaigns in January, when the Congress sets its agenda for the coming year, although both groups occasionally bring small groups of members in at times of pressing need.

The aasa assembles its “core8group” of about 90 politically active administrators in January to help chart the organization’s course as well as to influence that of the Congress, Mr. Hunter said.

While the aasa’s network is “self-selected,” the nsba charges its state affiliates with choosing “good advocates for public education,” said Michael Resnick, the group’s director of government relations. He said the nsba has about 750 network members in “virtually every Congressional district.”

The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of State Boards of Education have held a joint legislative conference in March for the past 11 years, said Gordon Ambach, executive director of the ccsso

“It’s a fluid time,” Mr. Ambach said. “Things are happening, but they’re still looking for ideas.”

The National Association of Federally Impacted Schools holds Washington conferences in March and September, but the fall meeting usually focuses primarily on meetings with Education Department officials.

The educators storm Capitol Hill in March because that is the start of the budget season, said John Forkenbrock, the impact-aid association’s executive director, and “the time we need to keep [lawmakers] aware of the program.”

That is particularly crucial for the impact-aid program, Mr. Forkenbrock noted, because it does not enjoy the broad appeal of a program like Chapter 1 that touches schools in every lawmaker’s district.

The American Federation of Teachers will hold its first legislative conference next spring, said Gregory Humphrey, the union’s director of legislation. He said the aft has previously deployed members only on ''crucial” issues, such as the 1986 tax-reform law.

“We want to make it more formal, because people need to be more visible,” Mr. Humphrey said. “There’s no way to deal with the current political situation without energizing your local structure.”

Congressional aides agreed that visits from constituents can sway votes. “I know my boss listens to his constituents,” said a Democratic Senate aide. “And we’ll sometimes get a call from another office where they’ve just been contacted by a group of locals and they now want to know what’s going on.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 1989 edition of Education Week as Amateur Lobbyists Key Foot Soldiers on the Hill