Sunday, May 22, 2011

Learnings from Participation in the Texas Political Process

I have been learning a great deal about the political process since the start of the 2011 Texas legislative session by participating frequently in legislative matters pertaining to public education. As the Texas budget crisis and its implications for our public schools drew my attention to politics in a way it had never been drawn before, I called, wrote letters, and emailed Senators and Representatives with my opinions. Thanks to the Texas Computer Education Association's (TCEA) Educational Technology Day at the Capitol on March 21st, I learned how to visit with my Senator and Representative (or their staff) in person to advocate for my views on pending legislation. Also thanks to TCEA's legislative activities, I even had an opportunity to testify before the Senate Education Committee regarding proposed changes to the Texas Education Code which were favorable for moving from traditional textbooks to digital materials in Texas public schools. (It looks like HB 6, the companion to SB 6 which I testified on, is going to pass!)

The Team of Concerned Parents, Educators, and Citizens I
Traveled the Capitol with May 21, 2011
Through my connections on Twitter and Facebook, I learned about the Save Texas Schools coalition and participated in a rally of 11,000+ concerned Texas parents, citizens, and educators on March 12th. I participated again in a Save Texas Schools event just yesterday, as a Rally in the Capitol was held while legislators were working to finish the legislative session before the end of May.

My Comfort Zone

I learned from these various experiences that I am much more comfortable with traditional, interpersonal forms of communication on matters of public interest than I am with protest rallies. While rallies are good news makers and can get an issue on everyone's radar, I think dialog has more chance of making a long term impact than does a protest rally. Dialog is also much more in my element, or comfort zone, than shouting protests at the doors to the House of Representatives. The Save Texas Schools Rally in the Capitol actually helped cement these perspectives for me, because it included time to visit the offices of legislators as well as the actual organized "protest" time outside of the House doors. I learned new perspectives by talking with the legislative staffers, and also learned that some of them agree with the positions I hold. I probably learned the most, though, from those who disagree with me. Not that they changed my mind, but they did help me to see a different side of the issue. I think in understanding the positions on all sides we have a better chance of meeting somewhere in the middle, hopefully for everyone's benefit.

Biggest Takeaway

My biggest takeaway from this legislative session? I have a voice, and I need to use it. We elect legislators to represent us; they cannot read the minds of their constituents. Voting in the election is just the beginning of our responsibility. We need to stay informed on the issues and act on the information. And if you want to get past the sound bites in the media, you're going to have to do a little digging, or stay connected to others who are digging like professional organizations or grassroots watchdog/advocacy groups. If possible, get information from a multitude of sources; somewhere in the middle of it all is a course we can all set and live with.

Becoming informed also puts you in the position of being able to inform others. Based on the information I was taking in, I was led to create a website to track educator job losses and try to inform others about how Texas public schools are funded. I can easily point friends and colleagues who have questions to that site. Creating it helped me internalize important information that I used when communicating with legislators, or when I heard our Governor cite statistics that were not accurate.

Second Biggest Takeway

Perhaps my second biggest takeaway was this: The citizens and legislators involved in the political process are all human beings, just like you and me, and I truly believe that citizens and legislators, no matter which side of the issue they come from, want what is best for their communities. We may not all agree on what is best or where the highest priorities should be, but we are all involved for the purpose of making today and the future better for ourselves and those who will come after us.

I may be a Pollyanna, but after all of the interaction I've had with stakeholders and legislators over the past few months, I refuse to believe much of what I've heard and read regarding an unspoken agenda on the part of some political groups to destroy public education. If there are such people out there, I believe they are in a fringe minority. What the majority of us want is improved public education. There is of course, a great deal of disagreement on how to improve our public schools. We need to keep the conversation going around what it takes to improve education. Assertions that there are organized groups trying to undermine education take energy and focus away from dealing with the real issues such as an equitable funding system for Texas public schools and the overemphasis on standardized testing as a measure of educational success for students and teachers. If we can meet at a table in the middle of all this and talk with each other instead of hurling accusations, maybe we can finally make headway in improvement of our public schools.

My Representative Listens

In all of this, I also have to give kudos to my representative, Larry Gonzales, and his staff, for taking time to meet with me and talk with me on the phone on multiple occasions this session. During the March 21st TCEA Educational Technology day, I saw Representative Gonzales at the Capitol elevators and took a moment to introduce myself to him. I could tell he was in a hurry, so I was not going to repeat to him what I had already spoken to his chief of staff about earlier in the day, but he stopped and took time to ask me why I was at the Capitol that day. A few weeks later, he phoned me personally to let me know he had voted for one of the bills I had been there to advocate for. Just yesterday, I stopped by his office, not to share any opinions about anything but just to say thanks for all the work he and his staff were doing and for always politely taking my comments and calls during the session. And he remembered me when I walked in the door, as he mentioned  our meeting at the elevators two months ago and remembered the school district I work for. Wow! He then took time to update me on legislation he had worked on and share some of his perspectives on current legislation. All this while his wife and two kids were there trying to grab a little lunch with him since he has been quite busy the past few weeks.

I do not agree with every vote Representative Gonzales has made, as I'm sure you don't agree with everything your Representatives and Senators have done, but one thing you should acknowledge is this: They stepped up. They ran and now they are in Austin working for you. It is largely a thankless job since you can never make everyone happy. It is truly a sacrifice of time and I am grateful for the men and women who fill these positions and keep our democracy working.

And It's Far From Over

The legislative session may be coming to an end, but my learning in this area is far from over. There are also consequences to be faced based on the at least $4 billion in cuts to education spending that are coming. I only hope we can keep the conversations going in the interim between now and 2013 and that we can work together to find permanent solutions to school finance and do what is best for the future of public education in our state. Even when people disagree, if they are willing to dialog and work together to find solutions, then there is hope.