Perspectives on Advocacy

By Theresa Kelly Gegen with Sarah Miller
Journal | March/April 2024 

In January, IASB welcomed Sarah Miller. J.D., as the Association’s new Associate Executive Director for Governmental Relations. The Journal’s Q&A with Miller, sharing her perspectives on advocacy in the public education sphere, is pre­sented here.

What does advocacy mean to you and why is it necessary?
Legislators overwhelmingly want to effect positive change in their communities and throughout Illinois. Hearing different perspec­tives on any given issue is critical to doing that. Initially, a bill can be the result of one constituent’s perspective or a response to a sin­gular issue that didn’t go smoothly. Therefore, to understand the full impact of a bill, legislators need to hear from diverse constituents so that the bill can be improved.

That’s where the IASB Govern­mental Relations team and school board member voices come into play on education-related issues. Together our advocacy efforts are so powerful because of the unique per­spective on public education that we bring to these discussions.

Using that perspective to inform a legislator’s approach to a bill does make a difference in shaping issues important to legislators. Additionally, board members can proactively identify key issues that impact their school districts and bring thoughtful solutions to their legislators.

It’s important that our advocacy efforts be both reactive, given the sheer volume of bills filed each year; and proactive, given that school board members know what steps are needed to help improve educa­tional opportunities in their partic­ular districts.

Advocacy and lobbying: How are they different?
There is, of course, overlap between advocacy and lobbying. I’ve always seen advocacy as a long-term and broader process of under­standing the issues that impact public school districts, building relationships with legislators and stakeholders who share our passion for improving public education, and communicating and engaging in dialogue on those issues in an effort to move public education forward.

There are so many avenues to engage in policy discussions and get involved at the local, state, and federal levels. This could be anything from serving on a leg­islative task force, to attending a legislative breakfast on a Sat­urday morning, to joining us in Washington D.C. to advocate at the federal level with our national organization, COSSBA.

Lobbying, on the oth­er hand, is a more target­ed approach towards influ­encing a spe­cific bill. Both approaches are important depending on the issue at hand.

You have experience in education advocacy, what have you worked on that will inform your work at IASB?
I find that many significant education issues tend to reappear every few years. As advocates we often spend years discussing a big issue before we find compromise language and a bill is passed. Once the bill goes into effect, we start getting feedback from our school districts as to how implementation is going, suggestions to improve the law, as well as areas that might have been overlooked initially. At some point, there is enough momentum to sit down again and re-examine the issue.

One example of that would be Senate Bill 100, which overhauled the student discipline portion of the School Code. The impetus for that bill was a growing understanding of the negative impact of exclusion­ary discipline on students, which is often referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Now that SB100 has been implemented by districts for several years, conversations have started to emerge as to how we maintain the integrity of SB100, but better balance that commit­ment to reduce exclusionary disci­pline practices with the importance of maintaining a safe educational environment for students and staff. Other issues with which I have been involved where we are starting to see renewed interest are pension reform (particularly the Tier 2 ben­efits structure and potential Safe Harbor issues), Dual Credit Initia­tives, and TIF Reform.

If there is any such thing, how does a typical interaction with a lawmaker come about, and what is it like?
I think it’s always best to start developing relationships with leg­islators before a big issue emerges at the height of Spring Session that could severely and negatively impact your district. Start build­ing those relationships early and be aware that during the summer and fall months when your leg­islators are not in session, they will have more time and energy to invest as well. Invite legislators to your schools so they can see the amazing work that you are doing, but also be upfront about the challenges your districts face and how they could help address those challenges.

Finally, I know our districts get frustrated with some of the legislation that gets passed, par­ticularly the mandates, and that is important to communicate to them. But, it’s also important to let legislators know when your district has benefited from the bills they have passed, wheth­er it is their commitment to EBF funding, Teacher Vacancy Grant funding, or expanding dual credit opportunities.

What is the most important thing a school board member should know about advocacy?
It is not as overwhelming as it may first seem. Legislators want to build relationships with the elected officials in their legislative districts and want to better understand the impact that their education bills have on their school districts. As a school board member, you can start by taking small steps like attending a legislative event and intro­ducing yourself to a legislator afterward. Alternatively, spend some time learning about the key issues being discussed during a session. Once you get more com­fortable with the issues, you can start taking incremental steps to get more involved.

What’s the first step to advocacy for a school board member?
The first step is being informed. It’s important to learn about the issues that legislators are focused on during a particular session so you can provide your unique perspective to help shape those issues. Second, what are the issues that are important to your district? Legislators can benefit from hearing your proposed solutions to problems impacting your district but they need to hear from you on what your biggest challenges are. Also, there isn’t one type of advocacy that works for everyone. IASB has so many opportunities to get engaged for that very reason. Whether you attend a legislative panel at the Joint Annual Conference, send an email to a or file a witness slip, the important thing is that you are getting involved in the process.

Sarah Miller is the Associate Executive Director for Governmental Relations with the Illinois Association of School Boards. Theresa Kelly Gegen is the Editor of the Illinois School Board Journal.