Derrick Lawson, principal of Indio High School, left, with his member of Congress, Rep. Raul Ruiz. PHOTO COURTESY OF DERRICK LAWSON

As a school leader, I strongly feel that advocacy should be part of our jobs. In fact, we have a standard for administrators in California that calls on us to connect with policymakers and engage on policy issues that affect education. That could mean anything from talking with our local officials to lobbying in Washington, D.C., but the point is the same: Too much of education policy these days is decided by people who have never been in the classroom. It is our duty to ensure that educators have a voice at the table during these crucial deliberations.

I’ve taken that to heart in my own career. I’m involved in advocacy at every level—local, state, and federal—and on a variety of issues. Over the years, I’ve developed a good rapport with my state assembly member and my representative in Congress, as well as the staff of many elected officials.

I’ve been fortunate to have personal connections through the schools where I’ve worked. For example, a U.S. representative’s niece was a student at my school, and half of my district’s state assembly member office staff are graduates of my high school, including one who is now a parent of a current student. These connections enable me to stay in closer touch, and it also gives these officials an opening to talk more about the education system since they are so directly affected by what happens in our schools.

Building Relationships Pays Off

I also work hard to cultivate those relationships, whether it’s sending regular emails updating lawmakers and staff on what’s happening in our schools or lobbying on Capitol Hill for a specific piece of federal legislation. The result is that when our representatives want an opinion about how some piece of legislation might affect our schools, they are more likely to call me since they know me.

I’m probably a little unusual in how often I meet with my elected leaders in Washington, D.C. Whether I’m there for the annual NASSP advocacy conference (where we have a Capitol Hill day) or for an NASSP Board of Directors meeting, I always make sure to touch base with my representative and my two senators.

I find that sometimes there are issues of importance to my member of Congress (Rep. Raul Ruiz) that might not be directly connected to education, but we still find ways to work together. Veterans affairs is one of his priority issues, so we’ve connected to that by working with him to host an evening for the families of graduating students who are interested in attending one of the military academies. Area schools take turns hosting that event.

In addition, Rep. Ruiz is a medical doctor, and his expertise has been important during the pandemic and moving forward. We’ve worked hard to get our students and their families, many of whom live in poverty, equal access to medical care, including access to vaccinations and mental health services. Rep. Ruiz has even participated in community vaccination clinics and supported the clinics offered at my school site.

Success on Important Federal Legislation

More specifically on education, we (and NASSP more broadly) have had some success on key federal legislation. One example is maintaining funding for Title II and Title IV programs in the face of proposed cuts. These programs provide important funding for staff professional development and financial aid for postsecondary students, among other things. We’ve also been able to protect and even expand funding for mental health services. COVID obviously shined a light on that need, but we’ve seen a growing demand for these services even before the pandemic. We also enroll an increasing number of students who are medically fragile, and they need additional support and resources.

There’s some overlap with issues at the state level, and we’ve had some success lobbying for state legislation that has really made a difference in our schools. One piece of legislation is aimed at strengthening the teacher pipeline by making it easier for paraeducators who have a bachelor’s degree to go back to school and earn their teacher certification. Some of my veteran paraeducators have taken advantage of that opportunity. In fact, two are working for me now as intern classroom teachers, and they are phenomenal. This legislation—which we worked hard to help get passed—has allowed us to get qualified people into those positions more quickly, especially in shortage areas like special education. It’s only been in place the last year and a half, but it is really making a difference.

How to Get More Involved

For anyone who is new to school leadership or wants to boost their advocacy efforts, I have a few suggestions based on my own experience. The place to start is to become aware of what’s happening with your local school board. Attend meetings and listen during the public comments to hear what’s happening in the community. Look at agendas to see what local issues are being discussed so you can add your voice. Connect as well with your city officials and attend city council meetings. These collaborative efforts to support education and students and families are always a place for finding common ground.

I also would urge you to reach out to your state assembly member or state senator and invite them to come to your school. Elected officials love to visit schools. Once you develop those relationships, it’s much more likely they’ll reach out if they are working on something education-related because they want to know how it will affect your school. It’s also worth researching what current education legislation is being considered in your state.

At the federal level, the easiest way to contact members of Congress is through a visit to their district offices. Obviously, that’s more difficult for senators, since in a state like California, they represent 40 million people. I send a short email to their offices every couple of months just letting them know about some important issues in our school or district and thanking them for their attention to education. It can’t hurt to invite them to visit, as well, especially your representative. You can look up what committees they serve on and the issues they are championing to get an idea of their priorities.

Finally, as I tell every principal I meet, you should join NASSP. Being part of a professional organization is so important because you are lending your voice to the power of a group advocating for what’s important in education. Issues vary across the country, but education is a high priority for every family. Joining NASSP is an opportunity to be part of the bigger picture and have a seat at the table in discussions about what’s best for students and schools.

NASSP sends out regular action alerts that usually include one simple way to engage and stay active. You simply read the alert and take the suggested action (often sending an email), which is sent to your elected representatives. I also read Principal Leadership regularly, including articles like this column, to get ideas for advocacy and education issues in general. I remember an article in my early days about how to advocate locally, which was a tremendous help when I first became a principal.

Derrick Lawson is the principal of Indio High School in Indio, CA, and a member of the NASSP Board of Directors.