All of the major education organizations employ lobbyists to champion their views on Capitol Hill. But some of the most effective advocates are not professionals.
When the House was girding for a key vote on a child-care bill this past fall, 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 still 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,” says Michael Edwards, NEA's manager of Congressional relations. “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,” says 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,” says Edwards, “because I get calls from members asking us if we will use the contact teams to help their legislation.”
No other education group has a lobbying network as extensive and aggressively employed the NEA's—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,” says Bruce Hunter, director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators.
Much of the lobbying done by association and union 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,” says the NEA's Edwards.
Some education groups bring members to Washington every year for “legislative conferences,” at which, in addition to lobbying, they listen to speakers from Congress and the Education Department.
State officials, administrators, and school-board members give similar answers when asked why they come: to learn what is going on in Washington that could affect them back home, and to be heard.
“Much of what happens to our schools is out of our control,” explains 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.”
The National School Boards Association and the AASA schedule their major lobbying campaigns for January, when Congress sets its agenda for the coming year, although both groups occasionally bring in some members at times of pressing need.
The AASA assembles its “core group” of about 90 politically active administrators in January to help chart the organization's course and influence Congress, Hunter says.
While the AASA's network is “self-selected,” the NSBA charges its state affiliates with choosing “good advocates for public education,” says Michael Resnick, director of government relations. The 750-member NSBA network is represented 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. “It's a fluid time,” says Gordon Ambach, executive director of the CCSSO. “Things are happening, but [Congress is] still looking for ideas.”
The American Federation of Teachers will hold its first legislative conference next spring. The AFT has previously deployed members only on “crucial” issues, such as the 1986 tax reform law, notes Gregory Humphrey, the union's director of legislation. “We want to make it more formal, because people need to be more visible. There's no way to deal with the current political situation without energizing your local structure.”
Congressional aides agree that visits from constituents can sway votes. Says one: “I know my boss listens to his constituents. 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.”
Vol. 01, Issue 04, Page 20