My education advocacy started with a bake sale. It was 2011 and Pennsylvania’s then Governor, Tom Corbett, had proposed devastating cuts to education funding. I headed to Harrisburg with members of my community where we put on a “bake sale” in the capitol building. We estimated that we’d need to sell 2.4 billion cookies in order to make up for the proposed $1.2 billion in state funding cuts.
The next year I ran for the statehouse in my south-central, PA district, a part of Pennsylvania that’s red and getting redder. While I didn’t win, I succeeded in getting a fair number of Republicans to vote for me because they cared about public education. That experience, and my early education advocacy, taught me an important lesson. Because it’s so difficult to unelect our lawmakers, they can take positions—like defunding public education—that are unpopular with their constituents. If we were going to ensure that our elected officials adopted and implemented a pro-public education agenda, we needed to be better advocates.
I started by organizing a parent group in my region. We succeeded at raising awareness and even got some of our lawmakers to change their tone in the way they were talking about public education. I was eager to do more. When a group called Education Voters of Pennsylvania asked me to come aboard as their advocacy coordinator, I jumped at the opportunity. Before long I was traveling around the state, talking to groups about the importance of overhauling the state’s school funding formula, and setting up forums with school officials. When the Executive Director of Education Voters PA stepped down five years ago, I took the helm.
Today, I’m more convinced than ever about the power of education advocacy. Several years ago our group issued a report about the devastating impact that cyber charter schools were having on local school districts in Pennsylvania. Prior to that, the issue was barely covered in the press, largely because funding problems were too complicated for stretched-thin reporters to write about. We explained in clear terms that anyone could understand that spending on cyber charters is crippling our districts, even though they graduate only 56% of their students. After our report came out, public opinion—and political opinion—shifted dramatically. There is now widespread agreement that spending this amount of money is unsustainable.
More recently we’ve been pushing for Pennsylvania to redirect casino tax subsidies to public education. When casinos came to our state more than a decade ago, a generous tax subsidy—close to $250 million—was allocated for the horse racing industry, meaning that that money goes right into the pockets of wealthy horse owners. Why not use that money to make higher education more affordable for low-income students, as Governor Wolf has proposed? After all, the same students who attend underfunded schools in Pennsylvania can’t afford to go to college.
Key to our advocacy work is getting information out into the world that’s useful and easily understandable. While much of our research and press work is focused on lawmakers and other decision makers, we also break down info so that it’s useful for local advocates. Fact sheets are very helpful for local advocates who want to know ‘how is this affecting my local school district?’
Most importantly, when we present the facts about an education policy that needs to change, we do so in a way that’s irrefutable. When we prepared a recent report about special education and charter schools in Pennsylvania, showing that the schools don’t enroll students with serious disabilities, we made sure to present the information in a way that lawmakers could understand, forcing them to confront what was actually happening. Of course, that still wasn’t enough for all of them. As one lawmaker told us, “I don’t like all of these words. I like pictures.”
Looking back on a decade of education advocacy, I feel very proud of the impact that Education Voters of PA is having on helping to to increase resources for the public school students in our state. We do this work with optimism, passion, and love in every corner of the Commonwealth.
Susan Spicka is the executive director of Education Voters of PA. She has been an active volunteer in her children’s public schools since her oldest daughter entered kindergarten in 2007 and she served one term on her local school board. Prior to moving to Shippensburg in 2002, Susan taught English in a high school with a high number of economically disadvantaged students in Columbus, Ohio. During this time, she witnessed first-hand both the incredible power of public education to change the lives of students and the challenges facing our public schools. Her teaching experience solidified her belief that all children, no matter where they live, deserve to have an equal opportunity to receive a great public education.