News from the Illinois PTA Convention—Incoming President’s Speech

At the conclusion of the 2017 Illinois PTA Convention, incoming Illinois PTA President Brian Minsker addressed the delegates. Following the speech, many in the audience urged us to share his message with all Illinois PTA members.

I’m willing to bet that almost every person in this room would say that they got involved with PTA because of their child. That’s not terribly surprising. Every parent wants to be a champion for their child.

But PTA has always been about more than that. When Alice McLellan Birney looked around her community and saw children ending their education after fifth grade or eighth grade, saw children working in factories, saw children locked up in adult prisons, she knew that someone needed to speak up for them, because every child deserves a champion.

Our mission as PTA is to make every child’s potential a reality not by holding a fundraiser, but by engaging and empowering our families and our communities to be advocates. That’s not to say that fundraising is not important. A fundraiser can make a big difference in a school, especially with our state continuing to provide inadequate and inequitable funding of our schools year after year, but when we are advocates, when we change policies and laws, we can make a difference for every child in Illinois, and every child deserves a champion.

Now, I sense that there are some of you out there who are a little skeptical about this advocacy thing. Maybe you’re thinking that those big changes that PTA made in the past happened because it’s obvious that children going to work in factories at 11 or being locked up in adult prisons at 13 was clearly wrong and therefore easy to change, but change is never easy. Maybe you think a small handful of PTA folks can’t make a big difference today, that money and lobbyists and special interests push regular people out of the process, so let me tell you about Illinois PTA this past year.

Last fall on November 15th we had Illinois PTA Advocacy Day in Springfield, the first day of the fall veto session. We had 12 PTA advocates come to Springfield that day, more than we’ve had there on one day in probably over a decade. We also sent out a call to action for those who couldn’t come to Springfield to contact their legislators. We were advocating for passage of a fully-funded state budget, for a bill banning the sale of energy drinks to minors, and for SB550, a bill to test every unique drinking water source in every school in Illinois, public, private, and parochial, for lead. While we had a handful of face-to-face meetings with legislators, we also spent time stopping by the desks of as many administrative assistants as we could to speak with, told them about our issues, and left our literature with them to pass on to the legislators. The 12 of us managed to visit a little over half of the legislators’ assistants that day.

The next day, our executive director was at a hearing and overheard one legislator say to another, “Boy, the Illinois PTA really showed up yesterday.” Well, 12 of us did, but we seemed like a whole lot more. And a funny thing happened that day: SB550, a bill that had passed the Senate in May but had been stuck in the House Rules committee since then (and if you don’t know, the Rules Committee is where bills go to slowly die) suddenly picked up three new co-sponsors. By the end of the veto session, the bill had picked up over a dozen new co-sponsors, moved out of Rules, gone through committee, and was headed to the floor with a Do Pass recommendation.

Since we knew there was a lame duck session coming up in January, Illinois PTA sent out another call to action just after the first of the year, and SB550 picked up 18 additional co-sponsors during that session and passed into law. While the amended bill limited the testing to Pre-K through fifth-grade schools, without PTA advocates contacting their legislators we would have had no testing at all for a substance that we know has no safe level of exposure.

So 12 people spending a day in Springfield and a few hundred more spending two minutes to answer Illinois PTA’s call to action made a difference in the lives of every child who will be passing through those schools for years to come. What could we accomplish for the children of Illinois with 100 people spending a day in Springfield or 10,000 spending two minutes to answer a call to action?

So here is my challenge today to all of you. Take out your smart phone and open your browser, go to illinoispta.org, click on the Advocacy menu, and then on the Take Action link on the side. Go to the Quick Sign Up part of the page and enter your e-mail address, zip code, and maybe your street address if your zip code has more than one representative in it, and then click that arrow to join the Illinois PTA Takes Action Network. Then go back to your PTA and get all of your members to do the same.

And when you get that PTA e-mail with the big button that says Take Action, click it and discover how quick and easy it is to type in your name and contact information and hit send to let your legislators know that you are PTA and you are a champion for every child in Illinois, because every child deserves a champion.

I am humbled and honored that you have chosen me to lead you, and I am looking forward to leading an army of champions for the next two years, champions for the child in the suburbs and for the child in East St. Louis, for the child on the south side of Chicago and for the child among the cornfields around Strasburg, and for every child in Illinois, because every child deserves a champion. Thank you.

Illinois PTA Convention Preview—Resolutions

The 115th Annual Illinois PTA Convention will be held on April 7th and 8th at the Hilton—Naperville. Convention is a great opportunity to attend interesting workshops and network with other PTA leaders, but it is also the time that the Illinois PTA conducts its business. Part of that business is directing the legislative and advocacy activities of the Illinois PTA.

One of the ways that PTAs influence what the Illinois PTA advocates on is through resolutions. Resolutions can come from an individual PTA or from the Illinois PTA Legislative Policies committee. A resolution can call for legislation, direct the Illinois PTA to work with other organizations, provide information to local PTAs, or study a topic further and make recommendations. At this year’s convention, there are three resolutions for the membership to vote on addressing financial literacy, climate change, and hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Resolution on Financial Literacy

The Illinois Learning Standards for math touch briefly on financial literacy, requiring students to understand how pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars work as money and as decimals for elementary students and to be able to calculate the effect of interest on money invested for a certain period of time for high school students. But the standards don’t address how to fill out a check, how credit card interest rates affect the cost of the things you buy, or whether you should buy a car by paying more money up front, taking a loan for three or five years, or leasing.

These issues are of increasing importance for our children as more and more students are graduating from college with more and more student loan debt. In fact, the total amount of student loan debt now exceeds the total amount of credit card debt in the United States. The Resolution on Financial Literacy addresses this issue through several actions:

  • That local PTAs and councils work with their school districts to incorporate financial literacy education into their curricula
  • That the Illinois PTA work with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to include financial literacy materials that meet the existing Illinois Learning Standards
  • That the Illinois PTA, local units, and councils work for legislation for programs that teach financial literacy.

Most of the concepts of financial literacy are based in math, and one of the most important ways to get students to take an interest in math is to show them how they can use it in real life. Thus, using financial literacy materials to teach math concepts can be accomplished within the existing Illinois Learning Standards. School districts just need to be willing to make the effort. In addition, many financial literacy materials already aligned with the Illinois Learning Standards are available, and programs from organizations like Junior Achievement can also play a role in developing financial literacy.

Resolution on Climate Change

The overwhelming majority of the scientific community agree that manmade climate change is occurring. Among the effects of climate change that have direct effects on Illinois are an increase in extreme weather events (e.g., tornadoes, droughts, and floods) and public health issues such as:

  • Increased respiratory ailments including asthma due to increased levels of pollen, mold, air pollution, and dust
  • Increased incidence of certain cancers due to higher levels of ultraviolet radiation
  • Increased foodborne diseases and nutritional deficiencies due to food contamination, shortages of staple foods, and the reduced nutritional value of food caused by rising carbon dioxide levels

The Resolution on Climate Change addresses this issue through a multi-pronged approach. These include:

  • The Illinois PTA providing information to local PTAs and councils regarding climate change and its effect on the health and welfare of children
  • The Illinois PTA, local PTAS, and councils encourage school districts to consider including renewable energy resources (e.g., geothermal heating and cooling, wind turbines) and green infrastructure (e.g., energy efficient windows, green roofs, permeable paving) when building or renovating school district facilities
  • The Illinois PTA work with other like-minded organizations on the issue of climate change and its effect on the environment and the health and welfare of children
  • The Illinois PTA, local units, and councils support legislation that regulates activities that contribute to adverse climate change, mitigates the negative effects of climate change, supports and encourages the use of renewable energy, and supports efforts to remediate the negative effects of climate change that have already occurred.

Resolution on Hydraulic Fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, uses the injection of water and undisclosed chemicals into rock layers at high pressure to fracture the rocks, allowing oil and natural gas to be extracted more easily. The contaminated wastewater from this process is then injected back into the ground for disposal.

Research has connected hydraulic fracturing to a significant increase in earthquakes, unsafe levels of air pollution near fracking sites (resulting in asthma attacks, lung disease, dizziness and seizures, birth defects, blood disorders, and cancers, among other health effects), and contamination of groundwater. The latter is of particular concern in Illinois, where 35% of all residents, including 90% of all rural Illinois residents, rely on aquifers for their drinking water.

The Resolution on Hydraulic Fracturing addresses this issue through both education and legislation. The resolution calls on the Illinois PTA, local units, and councils to:

  • Share information on the health and safety concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing and wastewater disposal
  • Work with other like-minded organizations to raise awareness of these concerns
  • Support additional research on current and new methods of oil and gas extraction and their potential environmental effects by independent researchers not affiliated with the energy industry
  • Support state and federal legislation that addresses the environmental and health effects associated with hydraulic fracturing.

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.