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Real-Time Advocacy: Part 2
In Real-time Advocacy Part 1, I used the quote "If you're not at the table then you're on the menu" to highlight the imperative need to advocate. My last blog chronicled the journey that my state GPR Committee embarked on to "make it to the table". For the committee, this meant achieving a long-time goal of having a Public Policy Institute (PPI) style event at our state capitol for membership. In Part 1, my purpose in writing was not convince you to advocate, but to serve as a guide on what to do and sometimes what "not" to do. In this blog, my purpose is to share with you all the successes that came from our efforts and to try and impart some wisdom from the lessons learned.
The Bridge between Parts 1 & 2
The major outcome from the KAPS GPR Committee's work last year was the ground work we did for future advocacy efforts. We contacted legislators and forged stronger relationships with our partners. The committee wanted the event to have maximum impact, so the timing of the event as is often said "is everything". Our experience the previous year taught us that the first week or so of the session is not a good time for this work, as it is reserved for committee appointments. Conversely, scheduling too late in the session is perilous because legislators are pressed for time and have less availability for meetings. The day of the week also needed to be factored into the scheduling. For example, in Kentucky, Monday should be avoided as most representatives don't arrive until late that day (if it all). The "sweet spot" we settled on for our event was the 2nd week of February on a Tuesday. This afforded us the best time to have an impact on legislation that we cared about, as it is around the point in the session when most bills are still in committee.
We identified our Fall Conference as a great opportunity to recruit for the forthcoming advocacy event, which was given the alliterative title "KAPS at the Capitol". In preparation for the fall conference, the KAPS GPR Committee made several overtures to our longstanding partners to present on advocacy and policy related topics. We also reached out to new stakeholders and organizations, inviting them to present at the conference with hopes that the invitation would assist us in developing relationships with them. At fall conference, our committee members facilitated these sessions, so that we could get the word out about "KAPS at the Capitol" and recruit participants.
The Broader Context and preparing for our Event
Two weeks after our pilot event on January 23rd, 2018, a shooter opened fire at Marshall County High School in Benton, KY, killing two 15-year-old students and wounding several more. Three weeks later, a gunman would open fire at Major Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. These tragedies fueled the outcry in Kentucky for action; legislators increased funding to existing programs for school safety, and many bills were introduced running the spectrum on what the response should be. However, the legislature adjourned having taken no action on comprehensive school safety legislation. This legislation would have to wait until the 2019 Legislative Session got underway the following January. In the interim, the governor appointed a workgroup to study the issue of school safety, composed of legislators from both political parties. This work group also included a diverse set of experts on the topic including a school psychologist; proof that our advocacy efforts were starting to pay dividends. The big takeaway from the group's efforts was that any legislation forthcoming in the 2019 legislative session should be "balanced," meaning it would be equal parts physical and psychological safety. Another big takeaway from the group's work was that our students and schools needed more access to mental health professionals. When the 2019 legislative session got underway in late January, the leaders in the House and Senate indicated that "School Safety" was their top legislative priority. As a symbol of this, the first bills introduced in the session in both legislative bodies were identical bills on the topic (SB 1 and HB 1). These bills represented a comprehensive approach to school safety and reinforced the need for teaming, including such language as requiring schools to develop a "Trauma Informed Care" team as well as a "Threat Assessment Team." Another important piece of this legislation was that it established a goal for all school districts to have a 1 to 1,500 ratio for mental health professionals, which included school psychologists, among others in its definition. This was the zeitgeist that the KAPS GPR Committee found itself in as it prepared for its first ever advocacy day.
With the new year beginning and the date for "KAPS at the Capitol" fast approaching, the committee made the finishing preparations. The event would be over two days (Monday Evening and Tuesday), with the Monday evening portion being a combination of "an introduction to advocacy" and a "preparation for meeting with legislators." The participants were instructed to contact their legislators ahead of time to schedule meetings on the day of the event. Our partners presented to the group as well, in 1-hour blocks allowing each participant the opportunity to receive at least 3 hours of Continuing Education Units (CEU's) on the topic of school safety and advocacy. In addition to meeting with legislators, we also coordinated with the NASP office and took advantage of the form letters they offer through the Advocacy Action Center. NASP extends the use of this tool to any state association, so our Committee drafted a letter urging support for SB 1. The "piece de resistance" for our event came with the opportunity afforded in late December when we were able to secure one of the advocacy trainings provided by NASP. We would now have an experienced advocate from NASP GPR Committee assist by providing the Basic Advocacy Training to our participants on the Evening prior to our day at the state capital.
Place at the Table
Extending the "on the menu" aphorism a bit further, the table was now set, and the menus distributed. However, getting to the table is only part of the job; once you're there, you better know what to order. I was recently introduced to another truism that highlights this problem: "Don't Ask, Don't Get". This little gem came from the grandmother of NASP's very own Eric Rossen, and our committee was about to become very familiar with this dilemma.
As we began our Monday evening training, the status of the school safety bill was that it had passed out of the Senate and was sent to the House. When SB 1 was on the floor of the Kentucky Senate, an amendment was added that resulted in drastic revision to the language surrounding ratios. Gone was the language identifying school psychologists as mental health professionals, as well as the requirement for school districts to staff mental health professionals at a ratio of 1 to 1,500 students. In its place was language that required school districts to staff 1 school counselor to every 250 students (the American Counseling Association's nationally recommended ratio). This development was cause for concern for the GPR Committee, participants of our advocacy event, and many of our partners, as it distorted the bills intent to increase access to mental health services. This was a disheartening situation, but our efforts to organize and strategically plan this event had their intended impact and we were now positioned as an association to do something about it. Learning from experience and the guidance of our partners, we knew that targeting our messages to the members of the House Education Committee was the best opportunity to get changes to the bill. But what exactly should those changes be? What should we ask for? The school counselor's association had advocated for this amendment because in Kentucky, their time was often consumed with administrative tasks (i.e. test administration, compliance related activities), leaving little time for direct services for students. As school psychologists, many of us have ridiculously high assessment caseloads; we can relate. However, our concern was the changes in the bill's amended language that would not provide school districts the flexibility in staffing to best meet the needs of their students. We had to chart a narrow path as we discussed what message we should communicate to our elected leaders. We settled on asking that the bill should include the definition of a mental health provider as it appears in the "Every Student Succeeds Act."
As Tuesday got underway, we felt confident; bolstered by our preparation from the night before. Our ace in the hole was that we were going to have a legislative roundtable in the middle of the day with the author of the SB 1. This roundtable turned into an energetic, but respectful discussion of our concerns. To his credit, the Senator listened to us and implored that we exercise patience with the process and not "throw the baby out with the bath water." The Senator took the extra step of putting us in touch with the legislative staff that was assisting him with the writing of the bill and productive dialogue ensued. Ultimately, much of the language that our members wanted changed would end up being included in the final version of the bill signed into law, and when the Senator testified the next week in front of the House Education Committee for SB 1, he explicitly mentioned school psychologists as one of the groups he had gotten feedback from.
KAPS at the Capitol was the crowning achievement of 2 years of hard work and dedication on the part of the KAPS GPR Committee. This event and the efforts of so many school psychologists resulted in our profession being mentioned several times and specifically identified as mental health providers in the law. If this was not enough, we also were able to deepen our involvement and relationships with partner organizations. We had 25 participants - many of whom had never done this type of advocacy - and all told doubled the number of legislative meetings from the previous year. Additionally, our general membership came through for us in a big way as we had over 287 form letters sent by our members using the Advocacy Action Center. The successes were numerous to be sure, but one more outcome of this experience was that it highlighted some clear next steps for our GPR Committee.
Gotta get me some of that Policy Platform
This was something that had emerged as a need last year. The committee needs some well-articulated policy goals, aligned with the strategic plan of our association, that guide its decision-making and efforts in advocacy. This was epitomized by our struggle to craft messaging in response to the amendments to the school safety bill. This was further complicated by the fact that members within the committee felt differently about what our response should be. A policy platform created by the KAPS leadership and endorsed by the general membership would have provided a compass to guide us in our message crafting.
One of the issues our committee was stuck on as we crafted our response to the amended language of SB 1 was what position, if any, we should take on the school counselors ratio. Our internal dispute wasn't with the need, but rather the fact it: a) it was counter to the "comprehensive" spirit of the law; b) it limited school district's ability to decide how best to meet the mental health needs of their students; c) the bill provided no funding mechanism to meet this staffing ratio. These were all valid concerns; however, as school psychologists, we work closely with school counselors when coordinating services and supports for our students. They are our friends and colleagues, and as a profession with its own high ratio, we can certainly understand their position better than most. How could we be opposed to this ratio and then turnaround in a future legislative session and advocate for a bill to improve our own ratios? This turbulence ultimately led us to the conclusion that we need to reach out to our sister organizations like the school counselors and school social workers about the possibility of forming a specialized instructional support personnel (SISP) coalition. The school counselors summoned a tremendous amount of their membership's energy toward this end, while KAPS and other groups spent energy to advocating the issue from a different, but equally valid position. What if this energy could have been harnessed and used to send the same message to legislators maximizing the impact of our combined voices to benefits of all? The implications for advocacy that the answer to this question poses makes the formation of a SISP Coalition a clear priority of our committee.
Well, that's it for the final installment of Real-time Advocacy. We've come a long way from where we started and the journey hasn't been easy, but it has been a truly rewarding experience. I hope that if you are reading this and you have never done any kind of advocacy that this tale will inspire you. You can start by attending NASP PPI this July in Washington D.C. PPI is where I and many of my fellow colleagues "cut our teeth" with this important work. If you are a member of your state association's legislative committee or its chair and are interested in planning a "Hill Day," please feel free to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or any member of the NASP GPR Committee. Until then, good luck in your advocacy efforts!