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The Great Divide

Why politicians don’t get education—and what you can do about it.

Starting in January, we'll have a new Congress, perhaps a new president, and a slew of new governors and statehouse lawmakers.

It's as close as we'll get to wiping the slate clean and taking a fresh look at the contentious, complicated relationship between elected officials who make policy and set funding levels and educators who supervise school districts and help ensure that kids are learning something.

Why the need for a clean slate?

Talk to pretty much any educator for more than a few minutes and you'll hear complaints about the elected officials who make the rules and set the funding levels that shape public education. They don't understand. They don't support us enough. They don't follow through on their commitments.

Talk to pretty much any politician, or the people who work for them, and you'll hear complaints about how school districts are run. They're slow moving. They cost too much. School officials make everything complicated.

Of course, there are some key exceptions-elected officials with a deep commitment to education who've studied the issue or even worked in schools, and educators who have that uncanny ability to speak in the short sentences and specifics that politicians generally need. Politicians want to hear ideas from educators that are different and offer some hope of measurable improvement in a few years, if not months. They need more than goodwill to put themselves on the line.

But you don't have to quit your day job or write big checks to have a successful relationship with elected officials. Here are a few ideas for narrowing the education-politics chasm.

Know the basics: It's annoying when elected officials don't know the first thing about the school system. Conversely, you don't want to be one of those educators who doesn't know when the legislative session starts and ends or which committee has jurisdiction over education.

Know what the association is saying: There's someone-a lobbyist, a government relations liaison-who's already talking to your representatives. Do you know what that person is saying? Find out.

Be a resource, not an advocate:
There's no shortage of folks clamoring for funding or attention, but relatively few knowledgeable people who can provide reliable, timely information when requested. Offer ideas and advice instead of just asking for things.

Develop an ongoing relationship:
You don't have to be the best of friends with elected officials-and don't overwhelm them by doing things like sending along lengthy reports-but if you can interact with them lightly during the year, via Facebook, e-mail, or Twitter, it will serve you well at crunch time.

Be clear and specific:
When the time comes, know what you need and ask for it in simple, straightforward language-a 5 percent set-aside, a change in a start date or eligibility definition. Leave it to others to call for full funding or vague, revolutionary change. Don't be the person who feels compelled to explain the whole backstory behind your request. They'll ask if they want to know.

There's no guarantee that you'll get more of what you want. Some officeholders will be limited by ideological or other considerations. But at least you'll have laid the groundwork for bridging the gap in the future.

—Fall 2012—

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