This November, San Antonians will cast their vote in dozens of elections at the federal, state and local level, with many of these outcomes affecting the future of public education in Texas.
The state’s public education system serves 94% of school-age children in Texas—work that is foundational to how well everything else in local communities function, said Libby Cohen, senior director of advocacy for Raise Your Hand Texas.
“It’s so important to not just how our communities function now, but how they’re going to be able to thrive 10, 20 years from now as the kids currently sitting in schools grow up and enter the workforce,” she said. “People who care about public education should be paying attention to each level of their ballot and thinking about how that connects to their public schools.”
Ensuring voters are informed about public education before heading to the polls is critical, as the state representatives and school board members who are elected have direct influence on the policies that govern local schools.
“Education issues impact all of us as a society, nation and world,” said Krista Pomeroy, a San Antonio-based educator and advocate for Raise Your Hand Texas. “It leaves an imprint on everyone, even if you think you’re far removed.”
The state’s role in public education
Part of the challenge for organizations like Raise Your Hand Texas stem from the fact that state government in many ways is the most invisible layer of government, unlike local or national politics, Cohen said.
“Mayors are often very visible in communities, and your school board leader may be your neighbor,” she said. “Federal legislators or the president populate the evening news or your Facebook newsfeed. But oftentimes, state government isn’t showing up.”
Part of the work Raise Your Hand does is to elevate the visibility and awareness of state government, including the fact that these bodies of government are key decision makers when it comes to public education, which is an issue that touches people of all ages in concrete ways. However, many Texans may not know the state controls a multitude of policies surrounding public education, including the accountability system; teacher workforce issues like teacher pay; how much districts can raise their tax rates; and the amount of funding each student receives.
“The Texas legislature is the 300-pound gorilla in the room when it comes to making decisions about how public schools function in their state,” Cohen said. “Your local school board is figuring out how to operate in a context that’s set by the state, and the legislature plays a decisive role in crafting that legislation.”
Pomeroy became more involved with public education policy after doing some personal reflection; at the time she felt like she was a good advocate for the children on her campus and district, but did not feel she had the ability or power to connect with legislators at the state level.
Pomeroy became part of a principal advocate fellowship which gave her the opportunity to begin networking and discussing public education policy issues not only with her campus, but also with other advocates across the region, giving her more knowledge of how to guide parents and teachers when it comes to issues they have questions or concerns about.
“Now I can guide them and say, ‘It’s out of our local control, but have you looked at where lawmakers stand on these issues?’” she said. “There’s always a platform or core value people tend to vote on, and helping guide people to available resources can help them be an informed voter. I won’t tell you how to vote, but I want you to be an informed voter when it comes to issues that impact public education.”
From voter to public education advocate
For any San Antonians looking for more of a hands-on approach to local public education issues, the first and most important step is to vote and be an informed voter, Cohen said.
There are a variety of resources for that, whether it’s League of Women Voters’ voting guides and Texas Educators Vote’s Who Does What in Public Education explanatory tool, or the Association of Texas Professional Educator’s Teach The Vote candidate profiles.
Beyond voting, advocacy is a year-round process, not something that just happens during election season or during the state legislative session. The first step to effective advocacy is finding people to do it with, which is where the Regional Advocacy Directors at Raise Your Hand Texas can be a real help, Cohen said.
“Our RAD team is encouraging and nurturing an engaged constituency all across the state 365 days a year,” she said. “If you’re interested in figuring out how to plug into that work, we want people to reach out to those RADs.”
“Our Regional Advocacy Directors [RADs] are encouraging and nurturing an engaged constituency all across the state, 365 days a year,” she said. “If you’re interested in figuring out how to plug into that work, we want people to reach out to those RADs.”
The team is composed of 13 directors across the state. They work to understand the challenges and accomplishments of public schools in their regions, educating them about public education policy and the policy-making process, and connect lawmakers and education stakeholders to one another. During legislative sessions, regional advocacy directors mobilize advocates to support or oppose specific legislation.
In addition to working with their regional advocacy directors, would-be education advocates may also look for existing local groups to partner with, including Parent Teacher Associations and various civic organizations such as chambers of commerce and Rotary clubs.
“Those [groups] can be a great avenue as well for saying, ‘How can we gather the resources and people assembled here and make sure we’re being supportive of our local public schools?’” Cohen said.
Before heading to the polls this November, Pomeroy urged voters to assume that educators have positive intent and not vote based on restricting teachers.
“There are extraordinary things happening within our campuses,” she said. “Go in there [and vote] because you’ve done your homework and learned for yourself.”
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