August Advocacy Tip: Adversarial or Cooperative?


School board members seeking to advocate for their students and schools have choices to make in terms of how they wish to relate to the lawmakers who represent them.

They can, for example, choose a cooperative approach where they aim to develop and build relationships with those who represent them in Madison.  This approach stresses having open and respectful dialogue with the legislators, even on issues where you disagree.

Because school board members are elected officials who can speak with lawmakers as one elected official to another, and because you share a constituency of voters with your lawmakers, the WASB encourages this approach.  Working together and building trust is an approach that works over the long run.  School board members are, after all, in the “education business” and part of our job is to help “educate” our representatives about the needs and goals and our local public schools in meeting the needs of our students.

At the other extreme is an adversarial approach, which tends to alienate lawmakers when there is a difference of opinion.   A wise observer of lawmaking once noted, “You may not get everything you want from your legislators, but everything you do get comes from them.”

Here is a closer look at these two models and some of the pluses and minuses of each.


  • Attack legislators who support items we do not agree with.
  • Assign sinister motivations to actions. Use partisan rhetoric.
  • Encourage formation of adversarial local groups to challenge legislators in their districts.
  • Encourage constituents to give ultimatums: support public education or we will vote you out.
  • Operate politically: make efforts to get legislators voted out of office.


  • Feels good (e.g., you are fighting for what you believe in).
  • Looks good to members/public that agree with your view or stance.


  • Builds no relationship with lawmakers – you will be viewed as aligned with political opponents.
  • No “seat at the table”–Because there is no trust built, lawmakers will not seek you out for input.
  • May alienate members/public who do not agree.
  • May create/ingrain negative stereotypes of public education.
  • May create/ingrain support for policies that may not benefit public school students.


  • Have open and respectful dialogue with the legislators. Even on issues where you disagree.
  • Develop relationships with legislators (invite them to your schools, to address a school board meeting, etc.).
  • Advocate for pro-public-education positions in a nonpartisan way.
  • Give credit to lawmakers when they do good things for public education.
  • Don’t go out of your way to assign sinister intent to policymakers whose positions you disagree with.  Instead, explain why you think your approach to a particular issue or problem is better and encourage your legislator to consider your approach.


  • By developing relationships, you can gain trust and become a resource on education-related issues. You may not always get what you want, but the door is open.
  • Maintains your ability to influence lawmakers on issues.
  • Keeps the power of a large coalition of members from all political ideologies.


  • Can be viewed as inaction or passivity.
  • Could provide political cover to lawmakers. (e.g., I talked this over with school board members in my district)

For more information on legislative advocacy, please consult the May 2015 issue of The FOCUS (subscription and login required).