Opening Up Communication with Legislators, by UEA Vice President Tom Nedreberg
March 9 was a remarkable day for Utah teachers. The legislature was starting its last week of the 2015 session and, as always, education was a big topic. There were more than 120 bills that directly or indirectly affected schools, teachers, parents or students. Those bills involved curriculum, funding, retirement, free speech, records protection, elections – even what constitutes a “quality school” and who should lead those schools and what qualifications they should have.
However, on that night at 5:30, something wonderful happened. About 3,000 teachers, parents, students, board members, administrators and superintendents came together in the Capitol Rotunda and raised their voices to emphasize the importance of funding education in Utah. The Utah PTA led the rally, supported by the Utah School Boards Association, the Utah Superintendents Association and, of course, the Utah Education Association, among others. (See more about the rally.)
Shouts of “6.25 percent” filled the Capitol, asking legislators to support the Governor’s requested amount for WPU increase. In the end, that didn’t happen, but they did fund a 4 percent increase, the largest in eight years.
The rally was a dramatic statement by UEA and other education supporters, but it wasn’t the only thing that showed legislators how teachers feel about education. More than 400 educators came to the Capitol for Educator Day on the Hill – half of them for the first time. By attending these weekly events and talking with their representatives, these teachers opened doors for the UEA Legislative Team and gave a face to Utah public education. They practiced one of the most important principles of politics: create and keep a positive relationship with your own representative and senator. We may not always agree with our legislators, but when they know who we are, how we will hold them accountable for their votes and how passionate we are about our students, we move the conversation forward.
Rally attendees also reached out to their legislators. On slips sent to their individual representatives, they shared their teacher stories, including what a WPU increase would do in classrooms. Some talked to their legislator directly.
Undoubtedly, this overwhelming show of support was impressive to the legislative body as a whole. Not only did they pass the WPU increase, but they also passed a tax equalization bill that raises $75 million for school districts across the state and a gasoline tax increase that will reduce pressure on the General Fund and free up money for education.
Finally – and I think this is of utmost importance to us as educators – the rally and educator engagement opened up a communication channel between legislators and teachers that needs to be maintained and nurtured all year. It’s important for teachers to carry on their conversations before, during and after legislative sessions. It’s important for us to be positive and to dream with legislators about the kind of public education system our Utah children deserve.
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