On February 3, I joined the Policy Ambassadors at the Capitol for Educator Day on the Hill. I applied for the program at the beginning of the school year to become more involved in local politics and better understand the legislative process.
We started with a fall retreat in October to learn about Utah’s legislative session, how education is fun ded, and the various terms used in the process. During the retreat, we shared our experiences with the political process and discussed how our voice and advocacy could lead to change. The facilitators emphasized the importance of knowing who our representatives are and how we can contact them to discuss proposed bills.
On February 2, we reviewed the schedule for the next day and met with a few representatives who stopped by to speak with us. The day was not wholly structured, so we could meet with our representatives, attend appropriations meetings, and observe floor debates in the House and Senate. We could see firsthand how quickly things move during Utah’s relatively short legislative session (just over 40 days).
I attended an appropriations committee meeting where various groups and organizations presented for 3-5 minutes about a cause or issue needing funding. I was surprised to learn that projects funded by the Utah legislature are not always tied to a specific bill. Appropriations meetings are an opportunity to request funding directly from a committee. If the funding is accepted, it is included in the budget voted on by the legislature.
I had the opportunity to meet with both my senator and house representative. I spoke with my senator about my support for increasing the WPU (Weighted Pupil Unit) and advocating for public education. Although I was disappointed in the passage of HB215 (teacher salaries and school vouchers), I could ask him how the state will hold private organizations accountable for receiving public funds directly siphoned off from public education. Although he did not have an answer at that time, he assured me that it was also a priority for him.
I also met with my house representative while she was voting on the house floor. We spoke for about eight minutes, during which she had to run back to the house floor occasionally to cast a vote. It felt nice that she was willing to speak with me during her busy schedule. I talked to her about my disappointment with the passage of HB215 and reiterated my concerns about the accountability of private companies receiving public funds. I also discussed HB295, a proposed bill that would remove the requirement for teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree, which would flood schools with underqualified individuals with a limited understanding of curriculum, lesson implementation, and classroom and behavior management. She was unaware of the bill and assured me she was vehemently opposed to it. We had a rich conversation on policy that could effectively address the teacher shortage in Utah. I expressed my belief in highly subsidizing teacher preparation programs at Utah universities to encourage more people to pursue a teaching career with little or no cost to them. Before we finished speaking, she asked me to stay in touch to potentially brainstorm more ideas on how to address the teacher shortage moving forward.
I realized that these individuals are Utahns, just like my neighbors and me, but they were elected as the collective voice for multiple Utahns. These representatives, while knowledgeable in many things, are not experts in everything. They come with a background of knowledge like everyone else in a working position and make decisions accordingly. The role of the constituent is also essential; these representatives rely on us to further inform their decision-making on unfamiliar topics. I did not need to be a Policy Ambassador to have these conversations. Anyone can call, text, or meet with their representatives to discuss what they find troubling or beneficial in a proposed bill. Sometimes, the whole process seems daunting and overwhelming, with nothing that can be done. It is true you may think a statement could harm, and you advocate for it to die in committee and not advance. It could still pass (HB215), and that can be a hard pill to swallow, but just getting involved in the process and doing your small part can be beneficial for representatives to understand the various voices and opinions in our great state. Suppose I am not there, speaking to representatives about what I think is suitable for public education. In that case, there is likely someone else there that may have a more harmful stance on issues regarding general ed and advocate in the opposite direction. Our representatives can only vote based on the information they are presented with, and it is our responsibility to inform them.
Being a Policy Ambassador was a great experience. I have always been interested in politics, but I have focused more on federal politics while being ill-informed about the political process in my state, where decisions directly impact my job and day-to-day life. I got to know the individuals from UEA who work tirelessly to advocate for teachers and public education. During the legislative session, they are at the capital nearly every day, talking with representatives and in meetings to advocate for our profession. Being a part of the Policy Ambassadors made me a proud member of my teacher’s union. I feel like my union dues genuinely go to a cause that helps advance public education effectively and professionally. I would love to be involved as a Policy Ambassador in the future, and I highly recommend anyone UEA member consider applying and participating in the process when the opportunity comes again next school year. It is a great way to feel more connected to your profession as a teacher.
Granite Education Association