The Woke PTA’s Guide to Advocacy

wokeptaThe last few weeks have seen an unprecedented level of civic engagement. Huge demonstrations have drawn out people who have never marched. Congressional switchboards have received more calls than ever before. Your PTA may have many members who are now looking for ways to advocate on behalf of children through PTA. Here’s a guide to help your newly #WokePTA started with advocacy.

IRS Limits

All PTAs are 501(c)3 non-profit organizations, which limits how they can advocate. The primary requirement is that your PTA addresses issues, not people. That means that your PTA cannot endorse candidates, but can (if your membership votes to do so) support a school referendum, advocate for policy changes in your school district, or speak out about pending legislation.

In IRS terms, this is the difference between “political campaign activity” (working for or against a candidate) and “lobbying” (working for or against legislation). The former is prohibited; the latter is allowed. Participating in “political campaign activity” can result in a PTA losing its 501(c)3 status and having to pay certain excise taxes as well.

The other constraint that the IRS places on 501(c)3 organizations is the amount of money they may spend on lobbying. The IRS limits lobbying activity to an “insignificant” portion of an organization’s budget, and defines insignificant as 5 percent. This means that your PTA can spend up to 5% of its budget on things like information handouts and yard signs about a school referendum. Given that most grassroots advocacy involves fairly low-cost activities, this limit should not hinder your PTA’s advocacy efforts to a significant degree.

Engaging in State and National Issues

One of the benefits of being a PTA is having people following issues and legislation on the state and national level. Both Illinois PTA and National PTA have easy-to-use advocacy tools to alert members about pending legislation that they should contact their legislators about.

You can sign up for the Illinois PTA Takes Action Network by providing just your e-mail address and zip code (to identify your state legislators). When Illinois PTA issues a call to action, you will receive an e-mail with a link to our Voter Voice tools that will have a pre-written e-mail that you just need to sign to send to your legislators. It literally takes a minute or two. The Voter Voice tools provide additional resources to help you find out about pending legislation and contacting legislators as well.

National PTA also uses Voter Voice for their advocacy efforts, and you can sign up using the Quick Sign Up box. National PTA also publishes a monthly PTA Takes Action newsletter that provides timely information on national issues.

You should also note that meeting with your legislators, either state or national, doesn’t necessarily involve a trip to Springfield or Washington, DC. Your legislators may have a local office in your community or nearby that you can visit as well. You can use the Voter Voice tools to look up your legislators and locate their district offices. Even if you cannot meet with your legislator, meeting with their staff can be productive as well. Last fall, Illinois PTA presented a webinar on how to meet with legislators as part of its preparation for Illinois PTA Advocacy Day in Springfield. The recorded webinar will walk you through how to set up an appointment and what to do when you have your meeting.

Addressing Local Issues

Advocating with PTA is not just about state and national legislation. PTA advocacy can make a significant difference in local issues as well. As Illinois’s budget crisis approaches 2 years, many school districts are conducting bond referenda to provide needed revenue for their schools. Your PTA can support or oppose a referendum if your membership votes to do so. Illinois PTA has covered the things that PTAs can and can’t do regarding elections, and National PTA recently teamed with Nonprofit VOTE to provide election guides in both English and Spanish.

If your school district has school board elections coming up this spring, your PTA can host a candidate forum. All candidates must be invited to participate in the forum, though some may choose not to do so. Each candidate should be given equal time to speak. Your PTA can have specific questions that it puts to all of the candidates, and you can also take questions from the audience. In the latter case, you may want to have audience members submit questions on index cards so similar questions can be reduced to one comprehensive question.

Local PTA advocacy is not limited to just referenda and school board candidate forums. Your PTA may be concerned about supporting special education students, gifted students, LGBTQ students, immigrant students and families, homeless students, or other groups. There may be school district policies that your PTA does not believe provide the best education or environment for the students of the district. If your PTA wants to address a local issue, but doesn’t know where to start, Illinois PTA’s video on How to Advocate the PTA Way walks you through how to pick an issue, create an advocacy campaign, and bring it to life.

Additional Resources

PTA has been advocating on behalf of children for 120 years, on issues such as child labor, school nutrition, and juvenile justice. PTA can make its biggest difference in the lives of children when it changes policies and laws that affect them throughout a school district or across a state or the nation. The benefit of this long history of PTA advocacy is that there are a lot of resources to help your PTA be successful advocates.

National PTA Provides New Resources for PTA Advocates

pta-advocacy-chagnes-lives-coverPTA is the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer child advocacy organization, with a legacy of work that has improved the lives of every child in this country. On Friday, January 27, National PTA announced its 2017 Federal Public Policy Agenda with a Facebook Live event (view recording).

As part of this announcement, National PTA released PTA Advocacy Changes Lives, National PTA’s guide to impacting public policy. The guide highlights PTA’s advocacy work and provides information on topics such as family engagement, juvenile justice, supporting children with special needs, health, and safety. Each section also includes a Why PTA Advocacy Matters section that shares a personal story of how PTA advocacy has changed the lives of children at the local level. If your PTA is looking for a way to make a difference in your school or your district, the PTA Advocacy Changes Lives guide is a great place to start.

Also included in the announcement was the release of National PTA’s legislative checklist for the 115th Congress. The checklist includes the following goals:

  • Adequately fund education programs through a regular appropriations process
  • Reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA)
  • Reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  • Reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act
  • Reauthorize and modernize the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) and Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)
  • Improve the well-being and learning environment of children
  • Expand and enhance early childhood education opportunities
  • Protect youth, families, and communities from gun and other violence

The checklist provides additional details on each of these goals.

SB550 Becomes Law, Reducing Lead in School Drinking Water

sb550-fountain-signedSenate Bill 550 (SB550), the Preventing Lead in Drinking Water bill, was signed into law by Governor Bruce Rauner on Monday, January 16, 2017. The bill has been a key focus for Illinois PTA advocacy this past year, and its passage is a win for the children of Illinois.

It is also a reminder that PTAs can have their biggest effect on the lives of children at their school when they advocate together for policy changes that benefit every child in Illinois or across the country. Illinois PTA thanks those who participated in the passage and signing of SB550 by contacting their legislators.

What SB550 Will Do

During the lame duck session of the Illinois General Assembly on January 9 and 10, 2017, SB550 was amended in the House before passage. Here is what the law will do for Illinois children.

  • School buildings built before 2000 that serve 10 or more children in grades pre-K through 5, whether public, private, charter, or nonpublic day or residential institutions, will need to test each source of potable water for lead. Those sources include taps, faucets, drinking fountains, and classroom wash basins as well as food preparation water sources, but janitorial sinks and basins are excluded.
  • The water to be tested is to be the first draw of water that has been standing in pipes for at least 8 hours but not more than 18 hours. If a sample exceeds 5 parts per billion (ppb), the school is to promptly notify parents and legal guardians of the location in the school where that sample was taken. Note that this level is below the US Environmental Protection Agency’s lead action level of 15ppb.
  • Schools built before 1987 are to conduct testing by December 31, 2017. Schools built from 1987 to 1999 are to be tested by December 31, 2018. The state will determine by June 30, 2019 if schools built from 2000 onward will need to conduct lead testing as well.
  • Licensed day care centers, day care homes, and group day care homes built before 2000 that serve children under the age of 6 will need to test drinking water for lead based on rules that will be in place by January 1, 2018. Those rules are to include testing requirements, training requirements, and notification of results.
  • Community water systems are to complete a comprehensive inventory of lead service lines in their system by April 15, 2018 and update that information annually. Such systems are also to notify potentially affected residences of construction or repair work on water mains, lead service lines, or water meters that could potentially increase lead levels in drinking water. Notification is not required if the inventory shows that the water system being worked on is lead-free.

Join the Illinois PTA Takes Action Network

This past fall, SB550 had passed the Senate but looked like it would die in the House. With Illinois PTA advocates meeting with legislators and staff during Illinois PTA Advocacy Day in Springfield in November and many more contacting representatives through our online campaign, the bill began to move during the veto session but did not pass. Our final campaign over the holidays to push SB550 through the house during the lame duck session in January helped get the bill finally passed.

Illinois PTA is most effective when our members combine their voices into PTA’s one voice, and the passage of SB550 provides ample proof of the impact we can have together. To add your voice to Illinois PTA’s one voice on future issues, sign up for the Illinois PTA Takes Action Network. Your e-mail address is only used to alert you to Illinois PTA advocacy campaigns, and our Voter Voice tools make it easy for you to contact your legislators in just minutes with a prewritten e-mail stating the Illinois PTA position. Join today!

 

4 New Year’s Resolutions for PTA Leaders

resolutions-list-600x400The start of a new calendar year is about the midpoint of the PTA year. Your PTA may have been less active during the holiday season when so many other events are going on at school and in life. Now that the new year is beginning, it is a good time to reflect on what your PTA has accomplished so far, think about what you still want to do, and consider how you can improve things as your PTA starts back up. Here are four New Year’s resolutions for PTA leaders to contemplate as their term heads into the home stretch.

  1. Be an advocate. PTA was founded to speak up for those who have no political voice—our children. As the new year starts, resolve to encourage your PTA members to be advocates for children and to be an advocate yourself. A great way to start is to encourage your Illinois representative to support SB550 during the lame duck session on January 9th and 10th. This bill would require testing every unique drinking water source in all Illinois schools for lead and notifying families if levels exceed the federal action level. This bill picked up numerous sponsors after Illinois PTA Advocacy Day in Springfield in November, and a big push now can pass this bill in the House and send it to the governor. Just go to our pre-written e-mail, add your signature and contact information, and enter your address (to identify your representative) to add your voice to the hundreds of others calling for safe drinking water for our children. Don’t forget to share the link with your members as well.
  1. Share more often. Your PTA has already done some great things for your school’s children, families, teachers, and administrators. Share your successes with your entire school and encourage them to join the PTA to help support what you plan to achieve this spring. People often avoid joining the PTA because they are afraid you’ll ask them to volunteer. Let them know that joining the PTA is to support your efforts and that volunteering is appreciated but not required.
  1. Be more thankful. Volunteers are the life blood of a PTA. Take the time to support your volunteers so that they feel their time and contributions are valued. Find fun ways to publicly show your thankfulness for their hard work.
  1. Prepare for change. Your PTA will be electing new officers this spring. Review your bylaws regarding when and how you should form your nominating committee. Make sure your officers and committee chairs are keeping procedure books to help make finding their replacements easier. Think about what you have learned that you wish you had known when you started your term, and prepare to share that information along with your PTA resources with your successor. Plan to make the transition to new leadership as smooth and seamless as possible.

Photo courtesy photos-public-domain.com.