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How-to Strategies

The following guidelines may not address the specific idiosyncrasies of how your state operates. In general, however, legislation that you will want to track includes bills targeted to areas such as of school mental health, trauma sensitivity, school-community services, and positive youth development. Or they may be more encompassing proposals within which questions of school-connected child development or universal prevention initiatives can be embedded, e.g., violence prevention.[1] Or they may be the big pieces of legislation on health care reform, for example, in which language that pertains, or could pertain, to school-based prevention is embedded.

It will be worth your while to know what general topics legislators may bring up during a session so that you can help educate them and their staff on child development and prevention issues and interventions as they are drafting pertinent bills (a piece of legislation before it is enacted).

An important way to stay on top of such legislation is through your relationships with key legislators and their staff. Not only will they receive lists of filed bills, perhaps daily when the legislature is in session, these allies are likely to be aware of overall strategic considerations. They are likely to comb these lists for issues pertinent to their interests. Once you know about a bill, you will need to monitor what is happening with it:

  • Is it moving forward in a way that your Action Team and collaborators support?
  • Is it stuck somewhere and what needs to happen to get it unstuck?
  • Is it being changed in ways that are detrimental to your goal?
  • Is it being opposed? By whom and for what reasons?
  • Where and how can you intervene?

While an initiative is making its way through the legislative process, your strategy should focus on opportunities to act. You should monitor both the program-oriented legislative committee that is responsible for an initiative in which you are interested and the fiscal committee, usually called the Ways and Means Committee and the Finance Committee. Often, positive action is required in both program and fiscal committees for a bill to become law.

Small victories help to maintain momentum as you pursue the bigger goals. It will be important to understand when support of small-scale legislation, regulations, or budget appropriations can advance the cause of building infrastructure for child development or prevention initiatives, or conversely, when it is a distraction.

Understand that unless there is constituent backing in a supportive legislator’s home district, you are unlikely to gain traction no matter how excellent your proposal. Therefore, it is advantageous to be in alliance or collaboration with a school-connected initiative or a local partnership or coalition in a legislator’s district. You should also have support from major school leaders and community organizations in the legislator’s district.

Working closely with a bill’s sponsors is very important because that legislator will have developed her/his own strategy, possibly with co-sponsors, and certainly with her/his chamber’s leadership team.  Sometimes, the chamber leadership will have a bill that could encompass your particular component of social and emotional learning, and if the Speaker or Senate President has attached this proposed legislation to an appropriation, so much the better.

How to Strategies:

Tracking the Budget

A core activity of the Action Team and staff, volunteers, and critical allies, is engaging with your state budget process and, if appropriate, its local analogue. In many states, there are non-profit budget analysis and advocacy organizations that can be enormously helpful in familiarizing you with the budget process in your state. The budget experts in these organizations may have previously worked for legislative fiscal committees or in the state budget division, so they follow budget cycles and processes closely and know how things are done – they can be great allies.

At the local level, budgets are generally less complex. Finding an official responsible for the budget at your local school board or municipal/county council can help you access this information.

Knowing the budget timetable for your state will be important: when are the operating agencies preparing their budgets to be submitted to the state budget agencies, and when are preliminary and final decisions made about what will be in the budget and what will be eliminated. Figuring out how to crosswalk the child development and prevention agenda with the governor’s or key legislators’ budget priorities can be helpful. Being as close to the discussion about what will be in the budget, right from the beginning, is more likely to produce a recommended appropriation than having to do advocacy after the budget comes out.

How the budget is constructed should be an object of scrutiny. States have different ways of organizing appropriations into agencies or line items or other categories. In some states, the legislature originates the budget; in others, it is the Governor.

Tracking Regulations

Once legislation (including the budget) is enacted, an executive agency becomes responsible for figuring out how to implement it.[2] That means that regulations must be drafted that will govern how the statute or budget item will work. This part of the process can provide crucial opportunities for advancing comprehensive student supports and behavioral health promotion. For example, regulatory changes with financing implications such as that resulting from health care reform and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers are important to pay attention to. How federal grants are implemented may fall into the purview of a state regulatory agency.

Staying on top of regulatory processes requires both the formal tracking of government registers and legal documents and the informal pathways to information via your relationships. Get on the necessary email lists but also build relationships.

It will be advantageous if you or your allies can be part of the process when regulations are being first thought out, prior to their official promulgation. It is in these regulation-drafting sessions that key ideas are formulated and decisions are made about implementation. This formulation phase is often the place where the field’s knowledge base can have the most impact. If you and your allies are able to help formulate the ideas behind what the regulations will do and how they will operate, you may be able to create an environment conducive for your initiative to flourish.

Once the regulations are issued, it will be important to ensure that letters of support come from your wider coalition or partnership (or conversely, that letters of opposition are written, if the regulations do not support your work). They should be genuine letters, not just chain emails or postcards.

Following commissions and task forces that make recommendations

Other important state-level venues where you may be able to shape thinking and thereby effectively advance school-connected child development and prevention approaches include:

  • A Governor’s commission that is tasked with formulating reforms or that will make budget recommendations on pertinent topics
  • A legislative task force with a similar charge
  • Activities that are funded by diverse state or local agencies, involving perhaps blending funding streams
  • A Children’s Cabinet or Council

You will need to keep track of both the legislative and the executive branches – and of the interaction between the two. Budgets, for example, are negotiated between these branches. Your Action Team should be aware of who is advancing what among the Executive Branch (Governor, agency heads including Medicaid and other financing agencies, the division responsible for the budget, including how federal funds will be disbursed) and the Legislature (committee chairs, ways and means committees, and staff to these committees).

Being at the “Tables” and Speaking at Public Hearings

It is desirable, and often possible, to shape the thinking of policy-makers by educating them in advance of formal actions. This is where knowledge about school-connected child development and prevention initiatives can get real traction. This is where data can influence people to formulate policy, and where personal relationships with key legislators, staff, or agency leaders can earn you a seat at the “table.”

The term “table” is used to describe the formal and informal meetings, committees, and task forces where ideas are discussed, input is sought, and decisions take shape before final written documents are issued. Be aware that trade associations and advocacy groups will frequently convene their own meetings to discuss policy and formulate their responses and recommendations, and you may be able to participate in these sessions. Sometimes, it is difficult to know where the “tables” are and how they are constituted but, as a state leader, you are in a very good position to get this information through your networking abilities.

Public hearings are the other end of the public education continuum. The legislature often holds public hearings. In addition, public hearings are sometimes held on the budget part of the legislative package and on the implementation regulations and guidelines. At all of these, think through which key Action Team members should testify for greatest impact.

[1] Such a scenario recently unfolded in a northeastern state: the Safe Schools coalition was asked to fold its legislation into the House Speaker’s more comprehensive juvenile justice legislation, with an appropriation.
[2] Nancy Amidei, So You Want to Make A Difference, OMB Watch, 12th Edition, February 1999.

Updated June 2015

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