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.

Plan Your PTA Take Your Family to School Week Event Now

tn-2017-tyftsw-social3Founders’ Day, February 17th, celebrates the legacy and work of Alice McLellan Birney, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, and Selena Sloan Butler to improve the lives of children. The date marks the first National Congress of Mothers, held in Washington, D.C. in 1897. As part of that celebration, National PTA designates the week that includes Founders’ Day as PTA Take Your Family to School Week.

This year, PTA Take Your Family to School Week is February 13-17, and the theme is Celebrating the Changing Faces of Families. Research shows that families engaged in their children’s education results in greater student success, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, or parents’ level of education. PTA Take Your Family to School Week provides PTAs with an opportunity to engage the families at their school in their children’s education. It also promotes your PTA and the work you do in your school, which can lead to more families joining your PTA to support that work.

Now is the time to think about how your PTA will bring families into your school building. Do you want to provide the opportunity for families to share a meal with their children, either before, during, or after school hours? Will you work with your principal to provide families the chance to participate or observe in the classroom? Do you have no idea where to start?

If your PTA isn’t sure where to start, both National PTA and Illinois PTA have resources to help you host a fun, pre-planned event for the families at your school.

National PTA also has an invitation letter to send to families and specially-sized graphics for your PTA to use on social media to help you promote your event. Plan your event now to celebrate PTA Take Your Family to School Week.

ISBE Unveils New Friendlier Website

seallogostacked_100pixelstallonwhiteThe Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) provides a wealth of information for families, teachers, administrators, and community members on their website. However, finding the information you were looking for used to involve navigating an extremely complicated series of menus and links, backing up from dead ends, and sometimes futile searches. However, right before the holidays, ISBE debuted their redesigned website with easier navigation, topics arranged in several different ways, and even a short introductory videos on how to move around and how to search the new website.

Across the top of the website are links to areas for key education stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, families, communities, and new media. The topics link at the end of the menu takes you to a grid of 21 separate topics, including:

A dozen of these topics are highlighted on the lower half of the home page. The bottom of the page provides links to the Superintendent’s weekly message and a calendar of ISBE meetings.

As the deadline for the state’s ESSA implementation plan approaches this spring, the easy access to Illinois’s draft plan and reader’s guide will be critical to families wanting to provide feedback. The third draft of the plan is currently being completed and should be available in the near future. Likewise, the information on the upcoming state assessments, including the PARCC assessment for grades 3 through 8 and the new SAT assessment for high school juniors, will be helpful for families wanting to understand the schedule for assessments and the release of their child’s results. There is also information on the new physical fitness assessments that are starting this year.

With the proliferation of misinformation circulating on social media today, it is especially useful to be able to go directly to the root source for accurate information. The new ISBE website makes finding that core information directly from the source so much easier than it has been in the past, allowing families to find out exactly what their child’s school needs to be doing to provide them with a quality education.

Snow Day Activities and Resources

snow-woman-1224043_960_720Snow days are great when you’re a kid—a day off from school to play in the snow! But for a parent, it can be a challenge to keep the kids busy throughout the day. Edutopia has resources for teachers and families to turn snow days into learning opportunities. Here are some highlights.

How Snowflakes are Formed

You may have watched a TED talk or two, but TED-Ed talks are short videos from educators brought to life by professional animators. If you’ve ever had a child ask how snowflakes form or why they are shaped the way they are, this five-minute video on the science of snowflakes answers those questions and more. To go beyond the video, the National Snow & Ice Data Center has a Snow Science page that explains even more about snow (e.g., the types of snow crystals, the types of snowfall, and the types of snow formations), with lots of pictures to go with the easy to understand descriptions.

Do Some Science Experiments

The Exploratorium in San Francisco was one of the first hands-on science museums. The museum also provides Science Snacks on their website—short, easy to do experiments that use common household items. There are well over 100 experiments on the site, so find one or two that interests your budding Einstein.

Snow Day Bingo

Edutopia created a Snow Day Bingo card with items to check off throughout the day. It is probably not an accident that “Watched Frozen” is on the card twice.

Don’t let a snow day be just shoveling and worrying about how to keep the kids entertained. Check out the full article for over a dozen activities to fill a snow day with more than just playing video games and eating snacks.