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Takeaways from the 2023 Public Policy Institute
Last month from July 19-21, NASP hosted another successful Public Policy Institute (PPI) in Washington, DC. Expert speakers, NASP Government and Professional Relations Committee (GPR) members, and NASP staff provided foundational and thematic policy and advocacy training. The theme for this year's PPI, "Advocate as if Public Education Depends on It: Supporting Civil Rights for All Students," was particularly timely with growing efforts to roll back and diminish students' civil rights at all levels of government.
GPR Committee Cochair Dr. Julia Szarko shared her reflections on PPI 2023, saying:
This year's PPI was special for so many reasons. It was our first time back in person, bringing together more than 60 school psychologists from 24 different states. We had dynamic, knowledgeable, and strategic speakers working in the trenches to protect our most vulnerable children and youth. This PPI brought forth an incredible energy that instilled so much hope in the face of our current realities, which I frankly haven't felt in a while. It was an important reminder that we are not alone in this hard work to defend the civil rights of students; we are seen, and we are valued!
Day 1: Foundations
After getting settled in at the Human Rights Campaign, PPI participants were welcomed by NASP President Andrea Clyne, GPR leaders, and NASP staff. We jumped right into the first session of the day, "Federal Education Policy and Civil Rights: Past, Present, and Future" with speaker Reg Liechty of Foresight Law and Policy. He spoke to participants about the history of federal education policy, the current challenges and opportunities to advance education equity, and how federal education policy impacts decision-making and practice at the state and local levels. GPR Chair Kari Oyen and Cochair Julia Szarko presented next, sharing foundational strategies and tactics for school psychologists to practice "Effective Advocacy to Advance Policy Solutions."
The final sessions of Day 1 shifted focus to one of the most impactful aspects of education policy-money. Education funding is a complex behemoth, and it looks different for every school, district, and state. Sarah Abernathy, Executive Director of the Committee for Education Funding, gave insight into how the federal budget and appropriations process affect state education agencies and local schools, as well as the current political and fiscal climate in Congress (see image regarding proposed cuts to federal education funding in the House for FY24). Sasha Pudelski, Advocacy Director of AASA - School Superintendents Association, followed with her presentation on a controversial school funding issue currently dominating legislative efforts and debate-school voucher programs. She highlighted how state voucher programs and efforts to implement nationwide school choice programs impact public education and hinder students' civil rights.
The foundational skills and information covered on the first day of PPI are essential for new advocates and important reminders for even the most seasoned advocates. The day wrapped up with several opportunities for participants to discuss everything covered in Day 1, including time for regional groups to discuss shared issues, and allowing participants to collaborate with other states on what key messages and advocacy strategies work well in their region. Regional groups broke off into state teams to further discuss how to make policy makers act on issues impacting school psychologists and the children they serve. Dr. Tess Melendrez, GPR Western Regional Representative, shared: "PPI highlights important policy trends, data, and resources needed to engage in advocacy at every level. It also demystifies our role as advocates within the current political landscape, leaving you with the courage and voice to speak out for the needs of all and every student." To that end, NASP staff and GPR members also led a small group activity for participants to reflect on what balance they think there should be between the role of federal versus state and local government in education. This sparked many great conversations about the political and cultural differences between states and how these differences inform individuals' preferences, especially regarding governments' roles supporting civil rights in education, which we explored more on Day 2.
Day 2: Landscape of Students' Civil Rights and How to Advance Protections
The second day started off strong with LGBTQ+ Committee Chair Amy Cannava and Ellen Khan of HRC, who both work on Project THRIVE, presenting on "Supporting the Civil Rights of LGBTQ+ Students in Policy and Practice." They provided context to the disturbing rise of attacks on LGBTQ+ youth that is contributing to a growing ecosystem of hateful beliefs and harmful policies. Importantly, they shared how school psychologists can prevent the adoption of harmful policies, respond to harmful policies if they are adopted, and support LGBTQ+ youth. You can find useful NASP resources on how to support LGBTQ+ youth here!
Next, Dr. Renee Bradley, Education Program Specialist in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the Department of Education, presented on equity in education. She was followed by Lakeisha Steele from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), who had a Q&A session with NASP's Director of Policy and Advocacy, Dr. Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, on "Standing Up for SEL." Numerous local school boards and state legislatures have considered and passed harmful legislation that would prohibit discussions of critical topics like racism, equity, and social-emotional learning. These sessions importantly helped identify key messages and data to advocate for SEL and equity, as well as ways to underscore why equity and SEL have such long-standing and overwhelming support from the public and professionals in education.
After lunch, during which participants again met with their state teams to prepare for their Hill meetings, Dr. Antoinette Miranda shared her captivating journey of working on equity in education as a school psychologist, graduate trainer, and now elected member of the Ohio State School Board. Her presentation on the "Role of School Psychologists in Dismantling Systemic Inequity and Disrupting Harmful Legislation" spoke directly to the unique position of school psychologists as advocates at the school, local, state, and federal levels. We were so grateful to her and all the other speakers for embodying the purpose of PPI to train and inspire advocacy. As GPR Chair Dr. Kari Oyen put it, "PPI empowers school psychologist to use their voice to advocate for students who need us the most!"
Assistant Secretary Catherine Lhamon, who is charged with leading the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, gave the final presentation of the day on the "Role of the U.S. Department of Education in Upholding Student Civil Rights." She shared encouraging information about the Department's work to protect students' rights under Title IX, the Civil Rights Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Everyone met in their state teams for a final time afterwards to complete their preparations for Capitol Hill Day. During all their regional and state meetings, PPI advocates tailored their key messages to each office they planned to meet with on the final day. NASP provided everyone with talking points and target legislation to discuss, but their personal stories of working as a school psychologist are what truly brought the talking points to life.
Capitol Hill Day
The final day of PPI started off bright and early with breakfast on Capitol Hill and a panel discussion with Hill staff to pull back the curtain on the goings on of Congress. We were joined by staffers from the offices of Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-1), Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Senator Chris Murphy (CT), and Rep. Mike Thompson (CA-4). NASP has worked with all these offices (and more!) on issues impacting school psychologists and the children and families they serve. The staffers were able to provide great advice on how to work with legislative staff and break through the political noise before school psychologists embarked out on the Hill. They advocated for Congressional offices to address the shortages of school psychologists, support civil rights for all students, advance equity in education, and discuss more issues affecting their district/state. Kristin Rush, GPR Western Regional Representative, captured the energy of Capitol Hill Day perfectly, saying: "PPI brings together a diverse group of advocates to support the same cause. Despite living and working in areas with differing demographics, ideology, and philosophy, we can all align to uplift messages of support for children."
We are so grateful to all the people who traveled from near and far to join us for PPI 2023 and to all the speakers who shared such impactful and useful information. We hope to have you join us next year, but you don't have to wait that long to advocate! Check out our Advocacy Action Center to send a letter to your members of Congress today, and get ready for our Advocacy Action Day during National School Psychology Week.