It is our job to protect and strengthen the power and promise of public education, model for our staff, and ensure each student’s success. As a principal, I’m committed to doing all I can to help my students succeed. But so many of the conditions that our students have to deal with are outside our direct control—the type of funding our schools get, the safety policies that state and federal governments hand down, and the lack of mental health supports students receive. Principal leaders have an influential voice, and “doing all I can” now includes influencing those factors with legislative advocacy.
This is personal for me. I grew up in a home where we didn’t always know where our next meal would come from; I remember going to the park during the summer months because they were giving out free meals. School sustained me in a lot of ways, as it does for many of our students, and I quickly saw education as a way out of poverty. When I’m meeting with elected officials, I have all our students in mind, but especially those who don’t have the power to advocate for themselves. I think of a student who aspires to be a great artist, and he will be, but the conditions of poverty and his struggles with mental illness may be preventing him from reaching his greatest potential. I currently advocate locally in Spokane, WA, and at the state level in Olympia, WA. Nationally I advocate in Washington, D.C., for more mental health supports in schools because every school has students whose obstacles are too significant to overcome alone. We can’t afford to waste an ounce of their potential, because then we all lose.
My Advocacy Beginnings
I am fortunate to live in a state with a strong principal association—the Association of Washington School Principals (AWSP). Within this organization, I serve on the legislative committee, and I serve as the federal relations liaison between AWSP and NASSP. This is where I got my start routinely advocating for issues that affect public schools. The committee members communicate regarding bills of concern, monitor legislative action, and assist with testimony, as appropriate. We meet in person twice each year and hold weekly conference calls during the legislative session. The committee also identifies and prioritizes the association’s yearly legislative platform for approval by the AWSP Board.
One of the most effective ways to familiarize lawmakers with the issues your school or district faces is to invite them to visit. Ask them to come to your school to talk with students and teachers or attend a staff meeting, a parent-teacher association meeting, or a special event such as a ribboncutting. I have invited senators and representatives to come for a variety of specific purposes. Some examples are:
- Shadowing me for a day during National Principals Month in October
- Checking out our science, technology, engineering, and math programs
- Attending a Veterans’ Day assembly
- Meeting with me for a regularly scheduled Zoom meeting with our state middle level association to discuss the importance of principal leadership and principal professional development
- Discussing our association’s legislative platform and funding concerns
How do I do this? I keep up to date on who my representatives and senators are. Each state has a legislative homepage, which you may reference to find your state legislators and federal Congressional members. This legislative webpage also tracks the status of particular bills and how lawmakers vote on bills. Taking time to check out legislators’ websites is also important so that you know what they are passionate about, what issues they support, and how they are voting. Knowing your lawmaker can help you make connections during scheduled meetings. Building relationships with lawmakers is as important as building relationships with your staff and students. As part of advocacy, providing feasible solutions to issues is key. For example, when we asked for more mental health services, we suggested placing them in the school so that new facilities for these additional services would not be necessary. When setting up a meeting with legislators, I reach out to the legislative aides by phone and email to make my request for a meeting, and then email them a one-page report that details the points I want to discuss and the school’s legislative platform for the year.
Aides and committee staff are critical to the legislative process, and connecting with legislative staff is key. In fact, legislators rely heavily on aides’ knowledge of the issues for gathering information and analysis. They are also more accessible than many lawmakers and can become an important ally in your efforts to discuss an issue or idea with a lawmaker. You can also become a valuable resource for them in sharing your knowledge of the K–12 world.
Making a Difference
I believe we have been successful in garnering more funding for safety and mental health support both locally and statewide. In the fall of 2019, I invited Rep. Jenny Graham to shadow me for National Principals Month and be honored at our Veterans’ Day assembly, as she is a veteran herself. During her visit, a situation occurred in our neighborhood and we went into lockdown. Rep. Graham was able to experience firsthand the importance of school resource officers and the work of a principal to ensure the safety of hundreds of students and staff in our school and communication with the community regarding the resolution of the incident. This event was a once-in-a-lifetime shadowing experience for one of our elected representatives to get a personal view into the “why” of supporting both safety and mental health initiatives for public schools.
Inspired by Student Advocates
I have always been driven to advocate on behalf of students. I take advocacy very seriously because of my personal experiences growing up—I knew that public education was my ticket to a safer, healthier future. Because my background is similar to many struggling students, I find great satisfaction in the work. I am passionate about promoting policies that support the emotional, physical, and mental health of our students so they are able to learn and achieve.
My first advocacy experience in Olympia occurred as a school counselor 25 years ago. I took a group of fifth graders to the capital to testify before our lawmakers about the importance of character education in the curriculum. Shortly thereafter, we presented at the Washington Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Conference to a room filled with principals and superintendents. Our voice had an impact, and I was inspired by my students to do more. Finding your passion is the beginning of advocacy. My advice to principals is to build a relationship by inviting your representatives and senators to your school, where you already have a high level of comfort. Reach out to your state principal association and NASSP for additional resources; their advocacy centers are there to support your advocacy efforts. Your voice matters. Get inspired and get involved!
Erika Burden, PhD, is the principal of Westwood Middle School in Spokane, WA, and is the 2020 NASSP Advocacy Champion of the Year.