State Legislators Are Listening to You. Now What?

EdChoice recently released an in-depth survey of nearly 350 state legislators across the United States.

It’s the first phone-only survey of its kind to be conducted in at least 15 years, and we’re grateful to the lawmakers who participated for their honest, open feedback.

Our goal with this survey was to find out legislators’ views on K–12 education and school choice, but also to probe how they make decisions, the sources of information they trust and whether they enjoy their jobs.

One key takeaway: Contact with the people they represent is critically important in the legislative decision-making process. Lawmakers take what their constituents say seriously, and those discussions affect how they vote. Conversely, lawmakers told us they’re not particularly swayed by news reports or — gasp! — polls and surveys from interest groups.

The bottom line if we want to continue moving the needle on educational choice is that legislators need to hear from people close to them — friends, neighbors, colleagues — who want more schooling options as well as those who’ve been helped by choice programs. That means more students, parents and educators who support educational choice need to get involved in the legislative process.

It’s easy to write that on a blog. In real life, the Statehouse can seem like a daunting, distant place that’s hard to navigate. Far too many folks assume their voice won’t be heard — even though we now know lawmakers put the most trust in what people in their districts have to say.

Good news: You don’t have to make a trip to the capitol building to be heard. Our nonpartisan research has informed us what lawmakers care about and to whom they listen. Here are five ways parents, students and educators who support school choice can engage with elected officials in a meaningful way based on what we learned:

1. Call and leave a message after hours.

Many state legislatures are part-time with limited staff support. The phones ring off the hook, often with calls from outside groups and non-constituents reading from scripts. Lawmakers told us in our survey that one of their top concerns about their jobs is time management. Want to make life easier? One suggestion that could be inferred from our study is to avoid calling during business hours. Instead, come up with a short message — 60 to 90 seconds — that includes your name, contact information and personal story about K–12 educational choice. Call only those elected officials who represent you, and make sure you state that you’re a constituent. Someone will listen to your message and report back what you said, but you’ll be making life a little easier during that person’s work day.

2. Send an email or write a letter—from the heart.

Lawmakers receive lots of written correspondence, much more of it these days than before the advent of email. Plenty of interest groups will contact their members with verbiage that they can cut, copy and paste into an email or print and mail to their elected officials. Legislators and their staff pay attention to that kind of correspondence, but it’s not as meaningful as something from the heart. Tell your story in your own words, and if you have the time, write it out and send it the old-fashioned way. You’d be surprised how a couple dozen original letters from constituents can affect how a lawmaker approaches his or her job.

3. Meet with them in the district.

Whether you live close to or far away from your Statehouse, it can be a pain to get through long security lines and find the right person to arrange a meeting. In their work environment, lawmakers can feel pulled in myriad directions, going from meeting to meeting, listening to the debate and casting votes. Fortunately for constituents, many lawmakers hold meetings across their districts when they’re not in session or on weekends. Those can be a great opportunity to share your story and spend a little time getting to know your elected officials in a more laid-back, conversational setting.

4. Do a little research.

In our survey, lawmakers told us they rely on their constituents as well as personal and professional networks to obtain information and help them make legislative decisions. If you believe in the “six degrees” theory of connected communities, you can put it to work as you tell your story. Legislators aren’t robots programmed to show up and cast votes at the Statehouse. They have lives and families. They might attend a place of worship. Part-time lawmakers often have full-time jobs. Find out about them and you’re likely to uncover connections you never knew existed.

5. Say thank you.

This should probably be the first item on the list. When you are an elected official at any level of government, you field complaints from your constituents — and often from those you don’t represent. Those calls and emails are a critical part of our democratic system, but they can take their toll on any legislators or staff member. (Almost anyone who has ever answered the phone in a legislative office will validate this point.) When we get mad, we get motivated, and that can lead to positive outcomes. But we very rarely say thank you when we get what we want from our elected officials. Whether it’s because a lawmaker championed your issue or just heard you out, a little bit of gratitude goes a long way in government.