Since August 2017, political advocacy groups from all over the state and across the country have written to Save our Schools Arizona asking for advice. How did we do it? How did we recruit volunteers? What polling drove our messaging? What was our social media strategy?
Like grilling a perfect steak or baking a perfect pie, the secret to grassroots political success is all in the preparation. In the case of our historic citizen referendum against Proposition 305 and its evolution into the #RedForEd movement, success is 90 percent about laying the groundwork; the rest is merely finishing touches and an appetizing presentation.
First, you need elected officials who either deliberately or helplessly neglect a constitutional mandate. In our case, the Great Recession of the mid-2000s that ravaged the Arizona economy led to understandable state budget cuts. But those cuts were so aggressive in public education, and then never treated even as the economy improved, that it set the stage for an entire generation of parents, teachers, and retirees fed up with the deteriorating state of public education. For parents spending $300 per kid to buy the school glue sticks, for teachers working three jobs to make ends meet, for retirees noticing for-profit schools popping up in every strip mall only to see them close six months later, this isn’t about party loyalty. This is our quality of life, as real and as personal as anything else that impacts your wallet and your family. Those are your volunteers.
Next, you need a statewide crisis. This includes 2,000 classrooms packed with students but staffed only by a substitute teacher. Every. Single. Day. It includes another 3,000 classrooms led by a warm body, but not one who’s been trained or certified to teach. Also included? Salaries so low Arizona teachers are driving out of state every day to work in New Mexico or California to make thousands more than they would for the same job here. School districts holding class just four days per week because they can’t pay five days’ worth of electrical bills. Arizona students choosing “cafeteria spoiled milk” as their Science Fair project because the school budget can’t cover more frequent purchases and learning in duct-taped textbooks about “current President George W. Bush.” That’s your messaging.
While that statewide crisis sits marinating, you want to start introducing a new ingredient: millions of dollars of out-of-state dark money flowing in from deep pocket ideologues who see your 1.1 million school-age children as 1.1 million opportunities to turn a profit. Funnel millions of anonymous dollars into the campaigns of “school choice” candidates who’ll not just ignore a starving public education system but actively introduce bills that take more tax dollars out of the public school system to promote private school vouchers. Then, as your public education crisis worsens, pour in more dark money to expand the voucher program that siphons out its meager funds. That’s your recruiting strategy.
Finally, while you let those base ingredients settle, turn your attention to the finishing touches:
- A dedicated but exhausted and skeptical professional advocacy community. You’ll need them to wish you the best, send emails on your behalf, and benevolently contribute to the narrative that you’re a lovely bunch of amateurs setting out to achieve the impossible.
- A healthy dose of ignorance. Don’t Google the last time anyone succeeded at what you’re trying to do. Don’t heed warnings that you’re going to ruin your personal life for nothing. Don’t fret that your group’s bank statement looks a lot like a #RedForEd rally. Just make it seem on Facebook like you’re loving every minute of your sweaty, sunburned, unpaid existence so other people think you’re on to something and send you 50 bucks or take flyers to the church barbecue.
- A sincere willingness to talk to everyone. Have coffee with groups who sued you. Work on bills with lawmakers you voted against. Invite people to your table so they know you’ll be a gracious attendant at theirs. If you say you’re not interested in partisan politics and you only want to find the best solutions, act that way.
For a meal that satisfies everyone, there’s always more than one cook in the kitchen. Solutions require a lot of different minds addressing the problem for a lot of different reasons. Recognize when you’re facing a “golden moment”–a time and place where everyone wants to see the same outcome, even if they weren’t working for the exact same reasons or in the exact same way. If the problem is addressed, recognize that as a win. You don’t all have to attend the same victory party, but you may end up inviting more new friends than you ever imagined.
— Dawn Penich-Thacker is the volunteer communications director and co-founder of Save our Schools Arizona.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.