Our recent article, Administrators of Gifted Programs: Paying Attention to the “Man Behind the Curtain,” offered a perspective on “Microadvocacy,” which operates on the scale of the individual child. Equally important is advocacy at a macrolevel—across a district, a state, or the nation.
A parent seeking appropriate services for her/his child may find that the core problem is not that the child is being excluded from benefits or services in the school. Rather, there are no or too few services in place to meet those needs. Under such circumstances, the Administrator of the Gifted Program (AGP) is not able to address the concerns or provide the service. It then becomes necessary to seek the desired change in policy through the political process. School boards at the local and state levels, and legislators at the local, state and national levels determine policy—that is, the set of rules through which scarce taxpayer resources will be allocated to meet almost unlimited needs. Parents must become engaged in the political process as advocates for their children in order to gain the needed benefits and services.
Parents of children with disabilities have been highly successful in advocacy efforts at the national level. For more than thirty years, under P.L.94-42 (The Education for All Handicapped Children Act) and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), federal law has required a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment for children with disabilities. Their success is based to a large extent on two key components, one philosophical and one practical. The philosophical component can be captured in the concept of vertical equity: “the unequal treatment of unequals in order to make them more equal.” Legislators and policy makers can take great pride in (as well as generate political capital from) helping the less fortunate gain access to a level playing field in society. The principal of vertical equity has been of benefit to individuals in poverty, as well. However, in the political arena, the principal of vertical equity does not similarly resonate when it comes to the gifted and talented.Those who would like to see resources allocated to meet the needs of the gifted are promoting “the unequal treatment of unequals” in order to make them more unequal. This philosophical difference makes the process even more challenging.
The second component of success is effectively advocating for legislative and policy changes to address the needs of this population. Those who are interested in supporting the nurture of gifted and talented students beyond the micro level will need to effectively implement strategies to advocate at the macrolevel. This article offers suggestions for successful macro advocacy for those who are willing to advocate for the gifted and talented by stepping into the policy arena.
Organize the Stakeholders
- Identify the group of people affected by the policy. They must be recruited to help you reach the goals. One person won’t do in this situation. The outcome must be a benefit for a group—a “class action” approach is called for. Policy makers must be made aware that there are many who have a vested interest the outcome.
- Be prepared to lead. That doesn’t mean that the leader does all the work. A good leader delegates. However, there must be a person willing to take the point and move the effort forward.
Articulate the Desired Outcome
- People have visions. Institutions have missions. The mission is usually designed to sustain and maintain the status quo (usually long after the quo has lost its status). Leaders are the formulators of the vision. Managers are the maintainers of the status quo. It’s the vision that’s important. A vision suggests change. If you have a stake in the vision, then as a leader you must convince the policy makers to bring about change.
- What do you want to accomplish? State your goal in objective, measureable terms.
- Determine who will receive the benefits of the policy, who will deliver the benefits, how the benefits will be provided (resources of time, money, personnel, facilities, etc.).
- Identify those who can help you reach your goals.
- Determine whether the best route to the desired outcome is through change in legislation, administrative regulation, or judicial action (lawsuit). Most advocates address the first two.
Acquire the Requisite Knowledge
An advocate must educate him/herself about the issues involved in attainingthe desired goals. Information is a valuable commodity. Having too little knowledge can subvert any hope for the initiative’s success. Too much knowledge isn’t possible. There are several areas where the acquisition of specific knowledge can make or break an initiative.
Of the History
- The same idea may have been floated before—find a way to make it a new proposition.
- Look at the other side of the coin, if you can’t argue for your opponent’s point of view, then you don’t yet fully understand the conditions.
- Many policy makers may not be aware of the problem/issue. Often, there is so much is going on that they rely on the input of advocates to inform them of the issues and concerns among their constituents.
Of What Works
- “Research-based” is the current watchword. Policy makers are looking for evidence of the effectiveness of programs and services in order to justify the allocation of scarce resources. Effective advocates provide the research to the decision-makers.
- There IS research that you can bring to the policy makers’ attention. Be aware of research resources such as the Templeton report, the CEEP report, and the Fordham report.
Of the Process
- Find out what else is on the agenda. Timing is critical in proposing to policy makers any changes to the status quo. Be selective and choose the date your submission carefully.
- Find out when the budget planning process occurs; avoid the problem of the proposal being delayed a year because it was submitted after the budget was set. (Most systems have a fiscal year that runs from July to July and set the budget in April after holding planning discussions in February.)
- Election campaigns are a powerful opportunity to engage candidates and to establish the outcome as a plank in the candidate’s platform. Get a commitment for change in exchange for support at the polls—support which must be delivered, by the way.
Of Your Rights
- Little rankles a policy maker more than “I’m a taxpayer.” Everybody is a taxpayer. Advocates convince the policy maker of the value of the goal.
- Find out what the law allows and does NOT allow. It does no good to request something that isn’t possible under the current legislation, nor does it reflect well on the advocate who hasn’t done the homework to find out what the current law stipulates.
- It’s always easier to listen to someone who is informed than one who is ignorant of the facts.
Of Who’s Involved
- Find out where the powerbase is and target that person. It may be a senator’s aide, or the superintendent’s spouse in the grocery store.
- Don’t waste time talking to those who can’t—or won’t make a difference. You need not persuade every legislator or board member, just the majority.
- You can ask for anything, but don’t expect or hold out for everything; be willing to consider a compromise.
- Don’t expect the policy maker to commit political suicide on the issue.
Determine the Message
- Craft the message to match its recipient.
- Be able to summarize your goal in thirty seconds or less. Policy makers hear many proposals. It is critical that the key points are made quickly. As Clarence Jones wrote with regard to the media and sound bites, “For the end of the world, two minutes.”
- In the message, include the following:
- Tell them what you want done. (Money is not enough; articulate what is to be done.)
- Tell them why it needs to be done. (Enlightened self-interest – or, as in what’s in it for them)
- Tell them how it needs to be done. (Assume a lack of expertise and knowledge, rather than a lack of good will on the policy maker’s part.)
- Tell them who is going to do it. (Be sure to include yourself in the list.)
- The Advocacy Paradox: the story of the individual child is most persuasive, but the goals of the process must be to benefit the group (“class action”).
Determine the Means to Deliver the Message
Letters, emails, petitions, informal personal visits and formal meetings are all of value, and all should be utilized. The media love conflict— a little contentiousness can attract print media and television coverage.
- Go to the policymakers and find something that’s been done that’s been a positive and THANK them for it! Then, at a later date, follow up with your request.
- Be present when the proposal is discussed.
- If the proposal is approved, THANK them for it.
- If the proposal is not accepted, THANK them for taking the time to consider it, and then let them know you will be back.
- As Woody Allen said, “90% of life is just showing up.” It is essential that advocates show up to support their proposal. There are many others in the “lobby” advocating for their proposal that are in direct competition with you for those scarce resources.
Evaluate the Process
Educators are being held increasingly accountable for achieving desired results. Advocates must do so, as well. You have to be able to determine whether and when/how you achieved your goal—or not. An evaluation plan provides a means to determine what went right in the advocacy process, or whatdidn’t go so well, and informs future planning efforts.