by Mark Kostin
After reading this blog, check out our local district policy toolkit for relevant tools and resources; make your voice heard in your school, district, and community.
Last summer, my 14-year-old nephew sent a text message to a group chat that included his cousins, parents, uncles, and aunts. Chances are you’re part of at least one such group chat, where the most frequent topics are trending memes and the number of messages sent by its members is inversely proportional to their age. This particular message was a little different: a request to sign an online petition. To be honest, I don’t remember the specific cause.
I support the idea of gathering signatures, especially as a tool within our democracy that can be used to bring awareness to issues that people want those in power to understand or redress; however, I rarely sign petitions and must confess that I didn’t follow my nephew’s request. I spent some time afterward wondering why.
Petitions vs. Policy
Petitions have the potential to be very powerful, if they are popular or go viral. Real policy changes have been made as a result of such petitions, as policymakers have difficulty ignoring the sheer number of voices. But when it comes to influencing local programs, practices, or structures—particularly in individual schools or school districts—petitions on their own can be insufficient, especially if they don’t trend on social media or gain sustained attention in traditional media like print and broadcasting.
While I believe petitions can play a role in policy-making, I think there are other more effective ways for residents to make change in their communities. Specifically, there are ways for city, town, and state residents to shape and influence changes in policies either at the school or district level.
Making Real Change Locally
In my experience, school board members and state legislators are most interested in hearing from two groups of people: experts and those who would be most impacted by a given policy. Experts are often called up to help pinpoint issues, identify root problems, examine and share data, recommend approaches, answer technical questions, and support their ideas with research. Certainly, it seems that we’d all want our policymakers to be as informed as possible as they consider policy mechanisms to address social problems.
But in my experience, by far the most compelling influence on policymakers are those who will be most impacted by the policy in question. I have testified a number of times in front of state education committees and have been invited to share my views with several school boards in my current role at GSP. I’m always careful to state my credentials as a representative from a non-profit with knowledge of policy. And though I have no doubt that many of those policymakers carefully considered my “learned” advice and perspective, my voice—and the overrepresented voices of those who look like me (White, middle aged, and male)—isn’t the one they needed to hear. The voices of students, teachers, and families, especially those from marginalized groups, are the ones that need hearing.
And so, a few words of encouragement to all the non-policymakers out there who are yearning for change:
- As a town and state resident, you have a right to share your views with policymakers. And policymakers have a responsibility to fully understand issues that their policies influence or address.
- Stories matter a lot. When advocating for a particular position, describing your experience and how you will be impacted by a pending decision is critical.
- Don’t hesitate to reach out directly to elected officials. Remember, they represent us and they genuinely want to hear from us.
- And for goodness sake, if you are an expert, if you are not directly impacted by policy changes, and—most especially—if you look like me, don’t hog the spotlight. It’s easier than ever to convey your perspective in other ways (online submissions are the norm, now). Cede your time, amplify the voices of those who are not heard enough, encourage others, and share your tips.
A Parting Thought for Students and Families
So yes, petitions play a role and can serve as catalysts that propel important issues in front of policymakers. But there’s an even greater way to make your voice heard and have an impact on policy-making in your school, district, or state: directly engaging with school board members and legislators. The vast majority want to hear from you; they want to know what you think and how you feel about a given policy. This is especially important for students and families who have been historically marginalized and for whom the very policies that are in place serve to perpetuate inequities and further entrench gaps in access, opportunities, resources, learning, and attainment.