I’m willing to bet that almost every person in this room would say that they got involved with PTA because of their child. That’s not terribly surprising. Every parent wants to be a champion for their child.
But PTA has always been about more than that. When Alice McLellan Birney looked around her community and saw children ending their education after fifth grade or eighth grade, saw children working in factories, saw children locked up in adult prisons, she knew that someone needed to speak up for them, because every child deserves a champion.
Our mission as PTA is to make every child’s potential a reality not by holding a fundraiser, but by engaging and empowering our families and our communities to be advocates. That’s not to say that fundraising is not important. A fundraiser can make a big difference in a school, especially with our state continuing to provide inadequate and inequitable funding of our schools year after year, but when we are advocates, when we change policies and laws, we can make a difference for every child in Illinois, and every child deserves a champion.
Now, I sense that there are some of you out there who are a little skeptical about this advocacy thing. Maybe you’re thinking that those big changes that PTA made in the past happened because it’s obvious that children going to work in factories at 11 or being locked up in adult prisons at 13 was clearly wrong and therefore easy to change, but change is never easy. Maybe you think a small handful of PTA folks can’t make a big difference today, that money and lobbyists and special interests push regular people out of the process, so let me tell you about Illinois PTA this past year.
Last fall on November 15th we had Illinois PTA Advocacy Day in Springfield, the first day of the fall veto session. We had 12 PTA advocates come to Springfield that day, more than we’ve had there on one day in probably over a decade. We also sent out a call to action for those who couldn’t come to Springfield to contact their legislators. We were advocating for passage of a fully-funded state budget, for a bill banning the sale of energy drinks to minors, and for SB550, a bill to test every unique drinking water source in every school in Illinois, public, private, and parochial, for lead. While we had a handful of face-to-face meetings with legislators, we also spent time stopping by the desks of as many administrative assistants as we could to speak with, told them about our issues, and left our literature with them to pass on to the legislators. The 12 of us managed to visit a little over half of the legislators’ assistants that day.
The next day, our executive director was at a hearing and overheard one legislator say to another, “Boy, the Illinois PTA really showed up yesterday.” Well, 12 of us did, but we seemed like a whole lot more. And a funny thing happened that day: SB550, a bill that had passed the Senate in May but had been stuck in the House Rules committee since then (and if you don’t know, the Rules Committee is where bills go to slowly die) suddenly picked up three new co-sponsors. By the end of the veto session, the bill had picked up over a dozen new co-sponsors, moved out of Rules, gone through committee, and was headed to the floor with a Do Pass recommendation.
Since we knew there was a lame duck session coming up in January, Illinois PTA sent out another call to action just after the first of the year, and SB550 picked up 18 additional co-sponsors during that session and passed into law. While the amended bill limited the testing to Pre-K through fifth-grade schools, without PTA advocates contacting their legislators we would have had no testing at all for a substance that we know has no safe level of exposure.
So 12 people spending a day in Springfield and a few hundred more spending two minutes to answer Illinois PTA’s call to action made a difference in the lives of every child who will be passing through those schools for years to come. What could we accomplish for the children of Illinois with 100 people spending a day in Springfield or 10,000 spending two minutes to answer a call to action?
So here is my challenge today to all of you. Take out your smart phone and open your browser, go to illinoispta.org, click on the Advocacy menu, and then on the Take Action link on the side. Go to the Quick Sign Up part of the page and enter your e-mail address, zip code, and maybe your street address if your zip code has more than one representative in it, and then click that arrow to join the Illinois PTA Takes Action Network. Then go back to your PTA and get all of your members to do the same.
And when you get that PTA e-mail with the big button that says Take Action, click it and discover how quick and easy it is to type in your name and contact information and hit send to let your legislators know that you are PTA and you are a champion for every child in Illinois, because every child deserves a champion.
I am humbled and honored that you have chosen me to lead you, and I am looking forward to leading an army of champions for the next two years, champions for the child in the suburbs and for the child in East St. Louis, for the child on the south side of Chicago and for the child among the cornfields around Strasburg, and for every child in Illinois, because every child deserves a champion. Thank you.