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Public school lobbying explained

Public school advocacy was the topic at one of nine Sunday morning panel sessions in a new format, "Coffee and Conversations," provided by the Illinois Association of School Business Officials. The 8 a.m. session on lobbying offered conference attendees a chance to learn from and ask questions of lobbyists of the school management alliance about how to become actively involved in the legislative process.

"Lobbying is not like it's shown on television, not like on 'West Wing,'" said Ben Schwarm, IASB Associate Executive Director of Governmental Relations, who testified there is little drama or glamour to it.

"First and foremost we make ourselves a resource to legislators on the merits of bills, because, with almost 6,000 bills this year alone, there is no way a legislator can know what's in each of them. We help them by learning about bills that pertain to public schools and sharing that information accurately."

Beyond that, Schwarm said, there are two kinds of lobbying: direct and grassroots. Direct lobbying involves lobbyists talking to legislators directly. "We follow certain bills closely, bills we choose to put on our list to track. Then we talk to the sponsor of each of these key bills before they are heard in committee."

Schwarm noted that school lobbyists must watch a wide range of subject areas beyond those that might readily be recognized as school legislation, including everything from labor to insurance bills. Many of the bills that cover seemingly unrelated topics, he said, actually impact public schools a great deal.

Beyond direct lobbying is grassroots lobbying, and "you can do it," Schwarm said. But it begins, he said, with developing a direct relationship with your legislators. "Then when you call, they know you and there is a good chance they will take your call, and as the relationship develops, they may call you," he said, and "that is exactly what you want."

"The thing that hurts us is when legislators say 'I haven't heard from one of my school districts,'" about a particular bill. "It doesn't take a lot of calls to influence legislation, in most cases four phone calls is perceived as a full-blown crisis," he noted.

There is a third way to become involved, namely through involvement in partisan politics. He suggested, as well, that a plea for assistance carries more weight coming from a legislator's "peers," as political party supporters and elected school board members are perceived to be. Thus, Schwarm urged interested board members to become involved by finding a candidate they like, and working for that candidate.

Agreeing with Schwarm on the value of making phone contact was Marcie Dutton, IASA Assistant Director, and another Alliance lobbyist. "First know your legislators' names and how to contact them by phone."

On following legislation, she said, "we will send you the information; don't get too wrapped up in the nuances of the bills. Don't worry too much about bill numbers, if you don't know them, it works just as well to use 'tag lines,' to ask: 'Please vote "no" on the bill that mandates school breakfasts,' for example."

Dutton said to make each lobbying contact a local matter. "Tell them how it impacts your local school district in their local legislative district." As local legislators, lawmakers respect local concerns and local control, she said.

Finally, she said, it is important to say thanks and to be polite and friendly. "The end is not always in sight, but the result of building a good relationship could be a friendship that helps you or your school district."



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