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Takin' it to the Tweets

Educators are using social media to mobilize for public education.

by Tim Walker

Educators are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. Who can blame them? Massive budgets cuts, widespread layoffs, broken promises, and media scapegoating—public education is taking the hits, one after the next.

“It really is an unprecedented time—the challenges educators face,” says Chris Janotta, a teacher in Tinley Park, Illinois. “But we’ve had enough and we have to do more.”

Across the country, educators, parents, and students have hit the streets, armed with placards and megaphones, to save public education from the budget ax and anti-teacher legislation cloaked as “reform.” Who doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned rally? There are still few more dependable ways to highlight a cause, energize allies, and grab the media’s attention.

But educators are also putting some digital muscle into their organizing, using social networking, video sharing, and blogging to share, collaborate, lobby, and mobilize. Joining activists around the world, public education advocates have joined the battle on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and other sites.

“There are millions of educators and parents who want to stand up for schools,” explains Janotta, who directs the Save Our Schools Million Teacher March virtual campaign. “But we need to interact and organize better. Social media can help us unite. We have always had a voice, but now it’s loud.”

Flooding Facebook to Stop SB6

Social media’s impact is easy to overhype—what, for example, does having Facebook fans really do for you? But for educators and their allies in Florida, social media provided the tools to help take down Senate Bill 6—a rotten piece of legislation that would have ended teacher tenure and used test scores to determine salaries.

“Educators across the state were shaken by SB6,” recalls Marta Zayas, a teacher in Miami. “This was a real crisis for public education.“

Despite strong efforts, public education advocates couldn't prevent the state legislature from passing the bill and sending it to Governor Charlie Crist for signature.

Down but hardly out, educators turned their social media arsenal toward one target with a simple, commanding message: Governor Crist, Veto SB6.

Thanks to Facebook, Shawna Christenson's essay, "Why I am a Teacher," became an online sensation in 2010. Christenson wrote the essay more than a year ago but posted it on Facebook during the controversy over SB6. The essay quickly went viral as its message of respect resonated with educators across the country.

Rapidly growing Facebook pages—Stop Senate Bill 6, Make Our Schools a Priority, No Tallahassee Takeover, among others—mobilized educators and allies to overrun Crist’s office with messages. By early April, 15 anti-SB6 Facebook groups had a combined membership of almost 200,000. Crist’s own Facebook fan page was inundated by Floridians opposed to the bill, and calls to his office against the measure ran as much as 5 to 1 against.

On April 15, Crist, expressing concern that teacher voices were being excluded from the reform debate, grounded the bill with his veto pen—along with many lingering doubts about social media’s impact on grassroots campaigns.

“What was so key about social media,” says Zayas who was active both on Facebook and Twitter to mobilize against SB6, “is that the voices, the community of educators, on these sites couldn’t be censored, filtered, or manipulated. On top of that, they united a diverse collection of citizens—educators, parents, community leaders - against this terrible bill. In the end, I think the volume of the opposition took most people by surprise.”

Is Click-Through Activism Enough?

In addition to its potential reach, Facebook and other social media is free and easy to use, which makes it irresistible to fledgling activists.

Social media, however, is a means, not an end, cautions Beth Kanter, CEO of Zoetica, which assists socially-conscious companies and nonprofits with social media strategies.

“Some people think, ‘I’ll throw up a Facebook page and we’ll be fine.’ It takes a lot more than that to be successful.”

Which is not to say Facebook groups and other social media campaigns are not effective. Even the most objective observer in Florida believes the mobilization via Facebook and Twitter had a tremendous impact on Gov. Crist’s decision to veto the bill. But Florida educators and their allies were also committed and well-organized offline—two critical components of any campaign.

“Above all you need personal messages, passionate leaders, clear calls to action,” Kanter advises. “The surefire way to fail is to put tools first. Think of your objectives, your audience, and what messaging resonates.”

“Pretty Good For a Small Rural Community”

Kyle Wormuth, a reading specialist at Unionville High School in Orange County, Virginia, watched with dismay last January as the state legislature debated two bills that would have imposed major cuts in education and potential teacher layoffs (including more than 50 in Wormuth’s district).

“I wasn’t especially involved in politics, but this situation called for action,” Wormuth recalls. “Nothing wakes you up like when they come after you.”

Wormuth volunteered to create a Facebook page for the Orange County Education Association to stir up support for a pro-public education rally in Richmond in February. He began and ended every day posting updates and resources and connecting with other pages to spread the word.

“Facebook and other sites are great for getting the word out and a great digital call-to-action,” Wormuth says. “But it needs to be connected to something tangible. The fact that there was a real-life rally made it more ‘real’ for many people.”

In February, hundreds of educators (estimates ranged from 700 to 1,000) converged on the state capitol in Richmond to protest the cuts proposed by Governor Bob McDonnell. Wormuth and others believe the rally helped persuade McDonnell to support a bill with less-severe cuts to education.

“Pretty good for a small rural community,” he says. “We’re a tiny Association but we helped move the debate forward in our direction.”

“Now were talking about what comes next.”

Effective online campaigns need time to mature and it’s important to build your networks and nudge more people to take steps up what Beth Kanter calls “the engagement ladder.”

“Ideally, you want people to go from simply ‘liking’ your fan page to taking action offline and encouraging others,’’ says Kanter. “These folks are still important because they spread awareness, but nurturing those higher levels of engagement is important.”

Especially when the hostile climate shows few signs of dissipatating. Budgetary crises are deepening, anti-teacher politicians are digging in, and ESEA/NCLB reauthorization lurks around the corner.

“We need to be more proactive,” says Chris Janotta. “Community for the sake of community sometimes isn’t good enough. Moving forward, if we don’t let up, we’ll be faster and smarter and more successful.”

Speak Up!
America is facing an education crisis that threatens our schools and students with more than 80% of school districts expected to lay off school staff. These layoffs will lead to crowded classrooms and dramatic program cuts.

That's why it is so important to take action and urge Congress to pass an Education Jobs Fund.

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