The two national teachers’ unions stepped up their lobbying efforts last week in hopes that lawmakers working to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will heed their priorities.
The 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers had begun in-district visits in more than 15 states two weeks ago. The move was part of its larger mobilization strategy, which included more than 17,000 comments submitted to the Senate education committee and hundreds of automated calls that patched constituents through to the office of their representatives when the House education committee marked up its version of a reauthorization bill Feb. 11.
The 3 million-member National Education Association then unleashed its own lobbying effort as members of Congress were back in their home states and districts for a weeklong legislative recess and with many public schools closed for winter vacation.
The NEA’s activities included member education, constituent outreach, high-level meetings with members of Congress and staffers, letters to the editor, rallies, and even paid media buys.
“Nationally, every single one of our affiliates will be engaged, and all local leaders and as many of our rank and file educators that can be engaged as possible,” Mary Kusler, the director of NEA’s government relations, said in an interview.
The teachers’ unions’ lobbying efforts come on the heels of a charge by NEA President Lily Eskelsen García that teachers were jilted the last time Congress reauthorized the ESEA, which produced the current iteration of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act. “Unlike when the law was written in 2002, Congress must hear now from those who know best what a revamped ESEA should look like—educators,” Ms. García said in a statement last week. “That’s why we are launching a national effort aimed at making sure lawmakers hear directly from educators about what hasn’t worked and what needs to happen in order to get the law right this time.”
The NEA’s efforts also include a two-week media salvo called “Get it Right,” which features TV, radio, and Internet spots that highlight the need to reduce the amount of testing, increase the availability of early-childhood education programs, provide more advanced classes, and reduce class sizes to allow for more individualized learning.
The $500,000 effort will be on display in 13 states that members of the Senate education committee call home, including Tennessee and Washington, home to Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray, respectively.
Sen. Alexander, Sen. Murray, and their staffs are in the process of trying to broker a bipartisan measure, and the NEA sees that negotiation process as the best opportunity for its members to make an impact.
“We are starting a very concerted effort in the next two weeks to kick off that engagement using strategic targets, most notably on the Senate education committee, where a lot of the discussion and opportunity for forward momentum is really possible,” Ms. Kusler said.
In contrast, efforts in the U.S. House of Representatives to overhaul the law have been one-sided. The House education committee approved a Republican-backed bill on a 21-16 party-line vote, and the full chamber is set to debate and pass that bill this week.
Priorities for both unions include a reduction in the number of required annual tests, dedicated funding for wraparound services, and the inclusion of early-childhood education.
The NEA and the AFT are also pushing back against proposals that would allow Title I funding for low-income students to follow those students to the public school of their choice, including charter schools, and a proposal that would block-grant and make transferable funding in Title II for teacher preparation and development and in Title IV, which authorizes funding for such purposes as after-school programs and school climate initiatives. The unions also aren’t fond of a proposal to eliminate maintenance of effort, which requires school districts and states to keep up their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal dollars.
“Before Congress is a unique opportunity to get ESEA right this time,” Ms. García said. “This means mapping out a new vision for our nation’s public schools, one that promotes opportunity, equity, and excellence for all students regardless of the zip code in which they live.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Unions Press Congress On Priorities in Rewriting NCLB