By: Deborah Gatrell
If you’ve learned anything about the Legislative process since the late 1970s, you’re probably familiar with I’m Just a Bill from the first season of Schoolhouse Rock. It’s a great little segment and explains the legislative process quite well, for both the State and Federal levels. What’s missing is this key ingredient: relationships. I learned that from experience over the past two years as I got to know my state legislators. When I asked them to run bills for the 2019 Legislative session both were happy to oblige. One bill even passed. Here’s how it all happened.
As a member of the first Utah Teacher Fellows cohort (2017-2019), I was asked to join the education policy conversation. In some ways this was terrifying – I did not want to join Twitter and was reluctant to submit my writing for publication. The Fellowship provided intensive training in network mapping, effective advocacy, the power of telling our stories, and encouragement to take risks. With a network of support to rely on, I jumped in with both feet. I started tweeting and writing, putting my name out there. We can’t shape policy if people don’t listen to us and they won’t listen if they don’t know we exist. So that was my first step – speaking: online through social media and on paper through the local newspaper.
Equally important was establishing personal connections. In one case, this was fairly easy. I already knew Representative Weight through my participation at neighborhood caucuses and as a county and state delegate. Full disclosure: I’m politically independent and unaffiliated with any party, but in Utah the Democrats are an open party and welcome all comers. Still, we hadn’t ever discussed policy in depth, so when I found out about the Democratic Representatives’ Hive Day (an open door opportunity to discuss anything you’d like with Democratic representatives) I jumped at the chance to visit with her. We had a great wide-ranging conversation and she was delighted to learn about my work with the Teacher Fellows and our #UTEdchat Twitter conversations.
Connecting with my state senator was a little more challenging. When the Legislative session starts, everyone is busy all the time. The Teacher Fellows participated in an Educator Day on the Hill in February 2018, sponsored by the Utah Education Association (and held each Friday throughout the Legislative session). This was my first time at the state capitol during the session since it happens during the school year. I definitely learned by experiencing the process, starting with a committee meeting where Rep. Weight was a committee member. However, I wasn’t able to meet with Senator Mayne – senators have to be present for votes and she was presenting one of her bills on the Senate floor when I asked to meet with her, so it simply didn’t happen. She did have some weekend Town Hall events during the session, so I tracked her down there and introduced myself as a Utah Teacher Fellow and Board Certified teacher, offering my insight should she ever need it for education related bills. It was a start.
Then the Parkland Massacre happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida. This spurred me to write on matters of school safety. As a military veteran and a teacher, I had an important perspective to share. So I did, confidently. I wrote, tweeted my published pieces and tagged legislators. I wrote more about changes to Utah’s Teacher Licensing structure and Teacher Leadership and tagged policy makers in the Legislature and State Board of Education. I sent emails and made phone calls and got replies and radio interview requests – not something I ever expected. Through writing and social media, I became a known quantity and then a trusted individual through personal interactions.
The 2018 Legislative session wrapped up with a School Safety Commission to study options. I watched closely as ideas were discussed in town halls and did my own extensive research as well. I found compelling evidence that Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws limiting youth access to weapons (a prerequisite for schools shootings) make a positive impact on youth suicide where these laws are in place. I shared my findings with Rep. Weight and she agreed to run a bill. As a retired teacher not long out of the classroom, she was uniquely positioned to take on this controversial topic. I was happy to support the process with research as well as insight from diverse perspectives during drafting, and then spoke in support of the concept when she presented it in committee over the summer.
Meanwhile, I participated in an intensive week of training as a facilitator for National Board Candidate support in August 2018. I was amazed by the state level support for the Board certification process in Washington, both by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and the Washington Education Association (WEA). This experience opened my eyes to what might be possible in Utah and I came home very excited to share what I had learned.
There are a lot of differences between education in Washington and Utah and plenty of room to improve here. I started asking questions and making recommendations. It’s a heavy lift to take on the level of support provided in Washington without clear demand from Utah teachers working towards National Board Certification, so that’s something we’ll build towards over time through a variety of networks. One first step was improving financial support and incentives, so I reached out to Senator Mayne and asked her to run a bill. We’d had some good phone conversations after the 2018 session where we chatted about my school, Hunter High, where she has strong connections and has given scholarships. She had attended some #UTEdchat Twitter conversations at my invitation. I’d had a good visit with her in person at the West Valley City WestFest where I’d gone to help Rep. Weight with some signs – they were sharing the booth. I emailed Sen. Mayne before I left Washington and asked her to increase the state stipend for National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs), previously $750 each year, and to make adjustments to the state program reimbursing teachers for their certification costs after the fact so costs would be paid up front instead. She immediately agreed to start the ball rolling.
Senator Mayne wholeheartedly took on the task of improving incentives and support for teachers pursuing National Board certification. She worked to understand costs and develop an improved process, collaborating with Diana Suddreth, a Board Certified teacher and Curriculum Director at the Utah State Board of Education who provided the information and expertise Sen. Mayne needed. I bumped into Senator Mayne at a local school board meeting just before the 2019 session started where we discussed the bill again and she invited me to contact the drafting attorney to provide input. Although the bill wasn’t public or numbered yet, she assured me it had a good chance at passage. At the 2019 Educator Day on the Hill Utah Teacher Fellows attended, I connected with the drafting attorney and raised concerns about re-certification costs. I chatted with Sen. Mayne again on a Saturday in late February where she shared a worry about a recommendation she’d received to bundle the bill with a larger bill sponsored by another senator. She asked for my preference. I deferred to her judgement, preferring results rather than credit.
Sen. Mayne’s bill, SB 208, was finally published and introduced two days later, just three weeks before the session ended. Sent to the Senate Education committee, it was heard a week later with two weeks left in the session. Travis Rawlings, at the State Board of Education, reached out to me about certification patterns under the new flexible process at the end of February for input on the Fiscal Note, and Diana Suddreth explained the bill to the Senate Education committee with Sen. Mayne. It passed favorably out of committee without opposition and out of the Senate two days later. Then it was off to the House of Representatives, where it goes through the same process – just like Schoolhouse Rock explains.
By this time, the Utah National Board Coalition (UNBC) was fielding questions from National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) across the state. I explained the bill in an email that was shared through the UNBC network and invited NBCTs to contact representatives to support the bill. Ellen Sheratt, Vice President of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) for Policy and Research, reached out to understand the bill and offer national level support, but we were too far into the process to capitalize on outside help by then.
At this point, we had less than a week left in the legislative session. Things can get really crazy then – all the normal rules and procedures get suspended. Controversial bills can consume everyone’s time and energy. Heard favorably in the House Education committee, it was returned to the House Rules committee over concerns about fiscal impact and it appeared the bill was dead for a terrifying moment. Thankfully, the Rules committee decided to proceed and sent the bill back to the House floor for a vote the next day. Rep. Carol Moss, another retired Utah teacher, spoke in favor of the legislation as the House floor sponsor, and it passed unopposed after a third reading on March 13th, one day before the 2019 Utah legislative session ended.
Governor Herbert signed Senator Mayne’s SB 208 on March 26th, so the bill is now law. Happy dance!
As for HB 87, Rep. Weight’s safe gun storage or Child Access Prevention bill, it experienced expected opposition from folks concerned that any firearm regulation is an attempt to take away all guns and died in committee. However, the safety of my students is a topic I won’t soon let go of. Young people spend the majority of their time at school or at home. Unsecured weapons, unsupervised by responsible owners in these places are a documented health hazard, to put it nicely. Passing a future version of this bill will just require more relationship building and organization.
Regular Utahns, including busy teachers, can have a voice in education policy and state legislation. Schoolhouse Rock gets the procedure right, but to get the ball rolling you need a positive relationship with your legislators. You don’t have to be a Utah Teacher Fellow to step out of your comfort zone, speak up on issues and offer solutions. Reach out. Get to know your legislators. Provide useful insight, relevant research and your personal stories. Personal stories are what brings the urgency. Get the right people on the same team and you’ll be amazed by what can happen.