Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Your State Legislature Needs to Hear From You

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

One state legislature wants to do away with school counselors completely.

Another state has made filing a FAFSA a graduation requirement.

Yet another is considering a bill requiring all students to submit a college application before finishing high school.

It’s more than fair to say that many are responding to the changes in the national political structure by letting federal officials know just what constituents think, and what they want the government to do. The effect of this action is clear, as many federal policy efforts have been stalled, changed, or even reversed as a result of this participation—a clear reminder that democracy is a participatory system of government that only works when people truly participate.

The same impact can be achieved at the state level, and some would even argue it’s easier to have your voice heard there.  With fewer constituents to serve, it’s easier for the folks back home to set up meetings, provide information, and set up town meetings of your own for elected officials to attend.  With frequent contact, it isn’t hard for anyone to become known to the staff members of a state official on a first name basis, and become a reliable source of information and opinion.

That’s especially true when it comes to education, an area where a vast majority of the decisions are still made at the state level.  That’s even truer with the recent passage of the new Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESSA), where Congress gave powers long held at the national level back to the states.  That’s part of the reason some of these counseling-related bills are being taken up by state legislatures; they have a new sense of opportunity, and they plan to make the most of it.

Since they have more opportunity, so do you—but will you make the most of it?  High caseloads and full work days sometimes make it challenging to stay on top of legislation, but these simple steps can keep you in the loop, and make you the active participant in school counseling you need to be:

Contact your state school counseling association  There’s a very good chance your state organization has a government relations committee, and may even hire a lobbyist to speak on behalf of school counselors.  It that’s the case, part of their task is to stay on top of legislation and policy changes that could affect your life as a counselor.  A quick email or monthly phone call to them is all you need to stay on top of essential issues—and if you persist, don’t be surprised if they call you one day with updated news on an issue they’d like you to actively support.

Subscribe to meeting notification systems  Many legislatures give members an opportunity to sign up for notifications of committee meetings.  These notices are sent directly to your email, and include the bill numbers and topics the committee will discuss.  Subscribing to notifications from all committees dealing with education—including budget committees—is another great way to stay informed.

Make a monthly visit to your district offices  Nearly all states require their legislators to maintain some kind of office hours in the area they represent.  While these are sometimes called coffee hours, they’re designed to give you direct access to your elected officials and their staff.  Going on a regular basis, even if you’re there just to listen, can build a strong relationship with your legislators.  Look for notifications of these office hours on their web page, and sign up for their monthly newsletter.  These are great ways to stay informed.

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