Working with the Legislature

IJ has years of experience advocating for educational choice programs in front of state legislatures and defending them in courts across the country, and we are eager to help you work with your lawmakers. Each legislature is different, but most of the time, you can expect your bill process to look something like the image below. At key points along the way, it will be critically important that legislators hear your stories about how the bill would help you and your family. IJ and other allies can help you identify these points and be prepared!

  1. Work with allies to find someone to sponsor the bill in the house and in the senate
  2. The bill is grafted and then “introduced”, usually into a relevant committee that will discuss it.
  3. Committees in the house and senate discuss the bill and vote on it.
  4. The state house and senate discuss the bill and vote on it.

Most state legislatures meet for only a few months of the year, so it is important that you have done your research and are ready to go before the legislative session starts. State legislatures are bicameral, meaning they have two chambers: a House of Representatives, House of Delegates, or General Assembly; and a Senate. The only exception is Nebraska, which has what’s called a unicameral legislature – only one chamber.

Finding a sponsor for your bill

Once you understand the legislative process, the next step is to research your elected officials. Map out your support and opposition and know as much as possible about each person. This is also something that the Institute for Justice, along with other partners, can help with – remember that your partners have a wealth of knowledge that comes from working on these issues for many years.

The most important step in the process is finding the right person to write and sponsor your bill, because they will be the person in the legislature who makes sure it gets passed – with your help, of course! Not all legislators are the same. They have different interests, skills, experience, influence and effectiveness.

One of the most important decisions is finding a legislator to champion your bill who is committed to pushing it over the finish line; a legislator who sincerely cares about bringing choice to your state and who is in a position to influence his or her fellow policymakers. Your legislative champion must “get it.”

Telling your family’s story is critical to recruiting legislative support. You know best what parents are experiencing in your state, and you are the expert when it comes to your child’s education. Yours is the most powerful testimony legislators will hear. Champions need to know what this means to you, to your group of parents, and to every family in the state. That way, when things get hard, your sponsor will do the hard work and find thevotes or stand up to the opposition.

IJ and other allies will be able to help you with this part of the process, but don’t be afraid to be part of it too – especially if you have done your research and know who in the state legislature would be able to champion your bill.

The best bill authors will be fearless advocates who are willing to face tough fights and able to get things done in the legislature. The sponsor will need to make your bill a priority even through tough odds. After a state representative and state senator agree to sponsor your bill, IJ and other partners will meet with them to make sure they understand the technicalities of the policy and are ready to defend it.

Finding more legislative support

You will need other supporters in the legislature to become additional champions – or co-sponsors – of your bill. When you talk to them, be sure to tell them why you are fighting for an educational choice program in your state. They can use your story while they are debating the bill on the floor or trying to get their colleagues’ support.

It is important to identify key legislators that you need to win over. Don’t treat the entire legislative body as a single target. Each person has different attitudes, constituencies, and interests that you need to consider. Whom do you need on your side? What motivates him or her? You will need to continually monitor where votes stand and what votes you need, to determine where resources should be targeted.

Remember: It’s important to identify who in the legislature you want to reach out to early, so you’re not wasting valuable phone calls on policymakers who are already on your side.

Some legislators will already naturally be on your side. Others will take some convincing. Some will oppose you at first and need convincing from voters in their district. And some will fundamentally never support educational choice. Focus on the votes you can get.

Getting your bill passed

Once your bill is introduced, the work to make sure it gets passed really starts! It is important to know the basic steps your bill will have to go through so you are lobbying the right legislators and committees.

After the introduction, the bill will be assigned to one or more committees. Committees are smaller groups of state representatives or senators that meet separately to consider bills in different categories. Most state legislatures have a committee that deals with education issues and a committee that deals with appropriations (spending money) and revenue (taxes); your bill will probably have to be considered by one of those committees first.

A hearing is the first formal action on a bill, and the first time a bill is considered in public (or “heard”). A hearing usually takes place in committee, and it is a chance for legislators to listen to experts and members of the public about what the impact of the bill will be. The bill sponsor should let you know in advance when a hearing is coming up and whether you and your members will be able to speak at it. IJ can also help you know when important hearings are coming up and what the rules are for participating.

After a hearing, or after a few hearings, the members of this committee will have to agree to send the bill on, either to another committee or to the entire state house or state senate for a vote. This can be the most important first step for whether your bill passes or fails!

If your bill does make it out of committee, the bill is usually scheduled to be debated and voted on by the whole chamber (House/Assembly or Senate). Once it has been approved by the first chamber, it moves on to the second chamber to repeat the same process, though in some instances identical bills can be introduced simultaneously in both chambers to speed up the process.

After the bill passes both chambers, it goes to the governor for his or her signature.

Session timing and bill deadlines are important dates to be aware of. You may have more than one opportunity to testify on a bill, and there may be opportunities for you – or your opponents – to amend legislation as it proceeds through the process, so familiarize yourself with the process and deadlines. Most, if not all, state legislature websites have information for the general public on this process. Again, though, this is something that partners – especially state-based groups – can help with. And remember, IJ is here to help you throughout the legislative process.

Contacting your legislators

Now that you’ve raised public awareness and cultivated a strong list of supporters, it’s time to mobilize them with targeted calls to action at key times. Make it as easy as possible for people to express their support. Supply supporters with phone numbers and email addresses and a way to figure out who their political representatives are. You can only ask people to do something a few times – so make it count.

A lot of people reach out to their elected officials with form letters, but it’s always better to write your own email – and even better than that, to make a phone call! The reason for that is simple: The more personal your message, the more it will resonate with state representatives and senators and their staffers.

Like we discussed in other sections, stories are powerful! Your goal is to make sure your personal story comes through.

Of course, not everyone will be comfortable making a phone call right away; as a leader, you can look for ways to make things easier. Maybe you can do a “call day,” where everyone gathers in one location and calls their elected officials, with the rest of the group there to offer moral support and cheer each other on.

You can also feel free to write out some main points before you get on the phone to help keep yourself and others on track. These should be as simple as possible. It might look like this:

  • My name is _____________________.
  • I am a constituent of Senator Smith.
  • I am calling to ask her to support SB 321, the Freedom Scholarships bill.
  • Educational choice would mean so much to my family (tell your story).
  • Thank you for your time, and again please support Freedom Scholarships.

Just remember, the more personal your outreach can be, the better.

Meeting with your legislator

While you are able to contact legislators from your own home, you should not discount the value of in-person outreach (when it is safe to do so). Ideally, each member of your group should request a meeting with their own elected officials who represent them. If logistically feasible, you as a group should request meetings with other policymakers whose votes you need – especially important is the chairperson of the committee who will hear your bill. In-person meetings might not be possible in your state right now, and that’s okay if they aren’t! Even if they are allowed, never push one of your members to join an in-person meeting if they’re not comfortable with doing it because of the pandemic. The health and safety of your members should always come first.

When you do go into meetings, be prepared to address the legislator’s concerns as you share your story with them. For instance, maybe the person you’re meeting with cares a lot about the budget and how much things cost. If that’s the case, make sure to mention how the program may save the state money. Maybe the legislator you’re meeting with is a former teacher or public school employee. If so, don’t forget to mention that public school test scores aren’t harmed. Of course, the most important part, as with all of your outreach, will be sharing your story – clearly and directly.

Legislators often hear from lobbyists who are paid to walk the halls of the capitol. Your story is real and it is personal to you, so make sure they know that. Canned letters and form emails will never go as far as a personal story that comes straight from you, their constituent.

You don’t have to be a constituent to meet with a legislator – sometimes, you’ll go to meet with a state representative or state senator whose support you have to win even if he or she does not represent your district. But if you are a constituent, make sure they know, because it will make it easier to get a meeting!

If you want to set up a meeting with your elected official, call and identify yourself as a constituent (if you are) and immediately state your reason for wanting to meet with him or her. You should explain what you would like to discuss and indicate how much time you think you’ll need and any other constituents you expect to attend the meeting. If the elected official is not available, politely ask to meet with a staff member who handles education issues. Have several dates and times to recommend, and be sure to thank the scheduler for his or her time. Since elected officials’ schedules often change, you’ll want to call their offices to confirm the meeting time and place as it draws near.

Planning a “Day at the Capitol”

One-on-one meetings like this are important, but if possible you’ll want to have at least one day during the legislative session when all of your members come to the capitol on the same day, wearing the and ready to meet with as many legislators as possible. You’ll want to fill the halls of the state capitol with your cause and make a big splash just like you did with your group launch or rallies.

It is important to talk to state representatives and senators close to the time when they will be taking action on a bill. If you visit too soon, they might forget, or not even be involved in the eventual effort to pass the bill once it comes around. If you visit too late, they might have already made up their minds. IJ can work with you to build out a calendar of important dates, such as when the bill will be introduced, when to expect a hearing on the bill, and so on.

Ideally, you will want to plan your day at the capitol based on important times for the bill, so that you can get the most “bang for your buck” when asking busy parents to take time and travel to the capitol together.

Mobilizing for hearings 

It is critical to attend as many bill hearings as possible, although ideally there will be no more than two. These can be boring and repetitive, but it is important to let politicians know that you are there and that you want them to pass the bill; you also don’t want your opponents to show up in force without your group being represented. If you can, plan to bring your core team to each hearing, and speak at each one. Ideally, hearing dates will be posted well in advance, and when you get those dates, you should do your best to share them with your members and get commitments to participate early.

You may need to submit written comments along with your spoken comments. These will be officially submitted into the hearing record. Try to keep them between one and two pages. Remember, you are the expert! Tell your family’s story and what a scholarship would mean for you and your children. Check with the committee clerk about when and how your written comments need to be submitted.

Find out how long you have to speak and prepare your oral comments. Typically, you will be given anywhere from two to five minutes. You don’t need to repeat everything you said in your written comments; just hit your most important points. Don’t be long-winded, don’t rant, and don’t repeat things others have said before you.

Oral testimony will usually follow the following simple format, which you can use to prepare and write out your comments.

  • Mr. Chair and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of (Bill Number).
  • My name is ___________.  I live in ______________.
  • I support the bill for two reasons:
    • My first reason is X (and explain in 2-3 sentences).
    • My second reason is Y (and explain in 2-3 sentences).
  • In conclusion, I ask you to pass (Bill Number).
  • I am happy to answer your questions.
  • Thank you again.

Coordinate with others testifying to ensure that you are collectively hitting the key talking points and themes and are not repeating each other. It is important for the committee to get a full picture of the issues you’re facing, and they will tune out if you repeat one another. Remember to always be courteous and respectful, even if you are not shown the same respect by the committee members.

Be confident. Legislators will appreciate you taking the time to participate in the process. They will almost always be polite to people who take time out of their schedule to travel to the capitol and testify. And you can be prepared for tough questions ahead of time!

Be warned: You may be in for a long day or night. Sometimes, elected officials put controversial issues at the end of their agendas, hoping supporters or opponents will leave before their time to speak. Other times, you may just have bad luck that your item is last on the agenda. Come to important hearings prepared to stay for several hours (or more). But know that if you show up late, you might miss it!

In some legislatures, there will be many hearings in a committee before a bill can go to the rest of the legislature, and not all hearings are equally important in terms of showing up. The first hearing is especially important, because it will be the first time legislators get to see how many people care about the bill. The last hearing before the committee votes is also important, because they need to be reminded how much support there is and encouraged to vote to let the bill go on.  You can work with IJ and the bill sponsor who can let you know which hearings are the most important to bring members to. You don’t want to exhaust your supporters. But for those key public hearings, it is extremely important to show support for your bill. You can hold a rally or event to gather everyone in one place before entering the state legislature. Plan to wear the same color or, if allowed, t-shirts or stickers that demonstrate solidarity.

A final note – be ready for the unexpected!

The legislative process can be unpredictable. For example, you might prepare to attend a hearing and speak for five minutes, but then so many people show up that everyone has only two minutes instead. Or maybe you find out that only one representative for each “side” may speak, and you have to decide at the last minute who in your group will speak. It’s a good idea to prepare ahead of time for the unexpected. Things like practicing giving a shorter version of your testimony and deciding ahead of time who will speak for the group if only one speaker is allowed can make the difference between being frazzled and commanding whatever room you’re in.

And speaking of the room you’re in – most state capitol buildings can be confusing even for people who are used to navigating them all the time. If there’s a building map available, check it out ahead of time and print it out for your members to take with them. Even better, you can plan to show up early and walk around to get your bearings. If there is someone in your group or a partner from another organization who knows the “lay of the land,” try to make sure they can walk with new members who are not comfortable yet.

What do you take to the Capitol?

Aside from learning what meetings you need to have and what is important to each legislator, it is helpful to bring a simple one-pager or fact sheet about your proposed bill. Reach out to IJ or other partners if you have questions about the kind of information you should include here. It should make it easy for legislative staff and policymakers to quickly understand an issue. They have a lot of issues they’re dealing with, so you want to front-load your literature with the most important facts so that you don’t lose their interest. These documents should also be shared with the public and the media. Some information to consider and include:

  • Summary of what the bill would do
  • How large your parent network is, and who is part of it
  • What your parent group needs, and why this program is important
  • The costs per student of public education, and how your bill saves money while giving more choices
  • Three or four brief personal stories

In addition, you can consider bringing along the following information when you visit the legislature:

  • A coalition support letter signed by your partners and/or community leaders
  • Model legislation (if there is no bill yet; IJ can provide this)
  • A “Myths & Realities” document – you can write your own, or you can request that IJ sends you copies of ours

Finally, remember that the most important information is inside your head! When you’re headed in to meet with legislators, try to make sure everyone has answers ready to the following:

  • Why your current educational situation is not working
  • What district you live in
  • Talking points and answers to the hard questions
  • What you will do if this legislation doesn’t pass
  • If your child is comfortable with it, an anecdote about something they’re struggling with in school, or a way that they’re doing especially well
  • Before and after profile of your children if your situation has recently changed – for instance, “my child Johnny had trouble reading even a few words, but since he switched schools, he’s been reading whole books”
  • Explaining factors beyond academic performance, such as your child’s safety or learning style

Finding your lines in the sand

If you’re organizing to pass an educational choice program, you are already taking big steps and making big sacrifices of your time and energy for one simple reason: Your child’s education is the most important thing. Once the legislative process kicks off, there will be negotiation and many attempts at compromise to change your bill. You can talk to allies in the state and to IJ about possible compromises, which will sometimes have to happen. But you should never make unnecessary compromises when it comes to getting your child the best education you can. Your group can be a powerful part of making sure that legislators aren’t able to water down important parts of the bill. Legislators should know that they won’t be able to make changes without you paying attention and pushing them to pass the best bill they can.

Have questions or need assistance? We are here to help! Contact us at [email protected]

Victory! Now What?

For a moment, imagine that everything went right. You built a parent group, you teamed up with partners, and you found a legislative champion. It was a tough fight in the legislature, but the bill passed – and was signed into law!

Now what?

Educational choice provides life-changing opportunities to hundreds of thousands of children and their families across the country. This isn’t a passing political issue; this is about opening up opportunities for future generations to come. And this should be celebrated!

It’s more than a program – it’s a legacy

Success is not defined solely by legislative authorization; success is ensuring this life-changing program continues to provide as many children as possible with the environment that is best for them to learn. This can only happen if the program is maintained for the families who come after you and continues to grow stronger and expand.

Imagine if there were already a network made up of families who went through similar circumstances as yours that you could have leaned on for support. Parents, for example, who already applied to the school you want your child to go to and could give you pointers on the applications. Children who already attended that school on a scholarship and could be a mentor for your child,

You can build a network that you can celebrate with when your child comes home with a straight-A report card, hasn’t missed class the whole semester, or is excited about the work he or she is doing. You can celebrate when your child graduates and heads to college or a job. All these things and more can happen if you build a legacy.

Think of things that you would have liked when embarking on finding a better education for your child and see what you and your network of parents can do. Here are some options, but the sky is the limit! Once parents come together, they can accomplish anything!

  • Alumni network
    Once you have an educational choice program in your state, you can begin to connect with older students who are nearing graduation and work on creating a network to share success stories and build community. You can host speaking events where former students or parents can share their stories and motivate current families to reach for the stars.
  • Annual graduation party
    Like above, you can host a yearly graduation party for students in the scholarship program to celebrate their successes and rally with other parents.
  • Mentorship programs for parents and students
    We’ve discussed this idea above in the context of building community as you work to pass a program, but mentor relationships can be long-lasting and continue after a program is passed – keeping the network strong for years to come.
  • Support to fill out school applications and adjust to new schools
    Once an educational choice program is passed, it’s possible that many parents will need help applying to private schools. Your network can be a powerful resource for helping parents navigate this new world, and you can even consider things like essay-writing training and interview preparation classes to help parents and kids in your network get into the schools they want. Similarly, you can offer support and ideas for adjusting to a new school, from people who have been there before.
  • School uniform and school supply drives
    Since many private schools require uniforms, your network can help become a resource for parents who are adjusting to this new expense. Perhaps you can have older students sign up to donate uniforms once they grow out of them, or you can work with local uniform sellers to get discounts for your network. You can do the same thing for school supplies.
  • Test and homework support groups
    Just as you can help people connect with mentors who have graduated for tutoring and resources, you can also work to create support groups for current students to study together and support each other.
  • Training student and parent ambassadors
    This idea can be an extension of previous programs, like a mentorship program or alumni network, when you connect with current or former parents and students who are so excited about the opportunities the program offers that they want to officially take on the role of ambassadors to help promote it to others.