Monday, May 9, 2011

How to Participate in Your Representative Democracy

I'm not an expert on this, but some of my Social Studies teacher friends tell me that we live in a representative democracy, not a true democracy. I believe the key difference is that we elect a few people to represent us in making government decisions instead of all of us attending huge meetings and voting on every issue. But a representative democracy only works well if we all communicate with our elected representatives on issues that are important to us. Also it helps that if a group of citizens such as a group of educators who are the experts in a particular area, band together to make our concerns known to our elected representatives. That's what I want to urge all of my readers to do today! It's also what the new Coalition for Louisiana Public Education is doing.

I believe most of my readers are educators, although some are parents and regular citizens who have been joining the blog recently. I also believe that the readers of my blog, while having many different opinions on teaching practices and school management, generally agree on a few key issues. One of those issues most of us agree on is that the recently adopted (by BESE) school grading system is inaccurate, unfair, and destructive of parental support for public schools. Not to rehash this issue which has been adequately discussed in earlier posts on this blog, I want to add that I have spoken recently to many school principals who are doing an excellent job and whose teachers are working extremely hard only to have their school probably rated as a D- this fall by this new system. This is wrong, inaccurate and unfair and must be stopped if we are to be successful in getting positive parental involvement, particularly in schools that serve high poverty communities!

Another important issue that I believe most of us agree on, is that the non-educators currently running our State Department of Education don't have a clue how to run a successful school, yet they are determined to tell you, the real educators how to do your job! I know they don't have a clue because all the takeover schools that have not been selective in choosing their student admission and retention are producing the poorest education results in the state. All of the direct takeover schools are doing more poorly now than before they were taken over by the state (see my post of Feb 19, 2011). That's why educators need to band together and demand the passage of a bill to stop any new school takeovers until it can be proven that these people at the State Department can run an effective school. (see list of bills supported by the Coalition below)  Or better yet, they just need to stop trying to micro-manage our local schools!

So how do we function effectively in our representative democracy to insure that we have a strong public school system that allows educators to do their job and to be respected as professionals? Very simple: We must communicate our opinions and our expertize to our elected legislators early and often! It does not matter how right you are on the issue of public education, if you do not communicate effectively with your legislators, chances are your opinion won't matter very much in our representative democracy.

So PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do the following right now! Click on the legislative links I am giving you here and look up the email address of your legislators (Senator and Representative) and write them down on a card and put it in your wallet. If you don't know who your Senator and Representative are (Shame on you), just click on this link and scroll down to the place were you can put in your home address to get their names. Also put the phone number for the LA House of Representatives 225-342-6945 and the number for the Senate: 225-342-2040 into your cell phone directory so you can call your representative any time when immediate contact is critical.

Next, I want you to send an email to your Representative and Senator introducing yourself if they do not already know you, tell them that you live in their district, and let them know that you would appreciate very much if they would allow you to advise them on education matters. Remember you are the expert on education! In your first email, you may want to advise them on just one or two issues that are important to your profession or to our public schools. But plan to communicate with them regularly. This web site and others that you follow from your School Boards Association, or teacher association (LAE or LFT) or others will keep you informed when critical issues are being voted on so you can call or email them right before they are scheduled to vote. (Often it's those constituents who are most persistent that get listened to) If you are a parent or regular citizen interested in public education, simply speak to them from your point of view.

Also, if you contact a legislator at his/her local office (you can look this up at the legislative web sites I gave you above), you will find him/her more receptive. They often go back to their district offices on Fridays or during breaks in the legislative session. You should also introduce yourself to the legislators' assistant who runs his/her local office. Often the assistant can get you in touch with or give a message to your legislator when it is critical to get to him/her before a vote.

Here are some of the bills that are supported by the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education that you should communicate with your legislator about. (Note: You can click on the bill number to see the full text of each bill.)

  • SB 35 by Dorsey and SB 201 by Perry would delay implementation of the letter grading system for all public schools and require BESE to revamp the system with input from citizens and educators. The Coalition supports either one of these bills.
  • HB 499 by Smith would stop new school takeovers by the Dept. of Education and instead provide for a memo of understanding for schools that are performing below the minimum required by the state. The Coalition supports this bill.
  • HB 84 by Smith would change the structure of BESE to reduce the 3 appointments by the Governor to only one and allow the House of Representatives and the Senate to appoint the other two. The Coalition supports this bill
  • HB 96 by Dixon would reduce the Governor's appointments to BESE from 3 to one. The Coalition supports this bill or HB 84
  • SB 248 by Willard-Lewis requires return to the original school board of schools taken over by the Recovery District that become academically acceptable. The Coalition supports.
This blog will give you more information each week on bills the Coalition supports and opposes.

One other tip: If you are able to build a working relationship with your legislator, ask him/her for his/her cell phone number. You will find that this is by far the most effective way to get the ear (literally) of your legislator. The constituents who have this cell phone number and who use it wisely are the ones who will get his/her vote.

Most effective legislators have a method of representing their constituents by mentally putting them into categories such as the following:
  • Who can help me get reelected and who can hurt me?
  • What are the gut issues that affect certain groups of constituents that could cause that group to either help or hurt me?
  • Do I personally like and trust a particular constituent?
If you and your colleagues in the education profession can position yourselves favorably on the above categories you will be successful in getting the right vote from your legislator.

My point is this: In this day and time when our public education system is under attack as never before, sometimes because of ignorance about the problems facing educators, it is not enough just to do your job faithfully in the trenches. It is critical that you function effectively in our representative democracy.

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