Jan. 31, 2023 | EDITOR’S NOTE: This book was published today. Read editor and publisher Andy Brack’s thoughts on an advance couple of the book.
Every year in the legislature, people try to get state lawmakers to pass their pet initiatives. Too many fail for reasons that are as varied as the ideas — the advocates don’t have a big enough idea, a broad enough network of grassroots support or not enough friends in the General Assembly. Or those wanting legislators to create a new law or program run out of gas and don’t work day after day to get it done.
Getting a legislature to do something new is just plain hard, often taking years that can thin resolve. But if you go in knowing what you want is hard and you don’t give up, you can be successful.
But how do you do it? Now there’s a South Carolina guide in a new book produced by the Riley Institute at Furman University. A People’s Movement by W. Robert Saffold tells the story of how former Gov. Richard W. Riley and a coalition of state and local leaders pushed through a penny tax for educational improvement during his second term in the 1980s.
“In today’s world when so many challenges face us and too many of our citizens believe that they cannot make a difference, the passage of the 1984 South Carolina Education Improvement Act is a story of what can happen when strong leaders listen and engage citizenry on matters that affect us all,” said Therese K. Dozier, an Irmo teacher during the campaign who became a National Teacher of the Year.
What we like about this book is that it literally is a playbook with 25 different strategies that were used by Riley and his team to convince the General Assembly to invest more in education. The author does a good job of explaining each strategy, or “play,” and offering context for how it helped the overall effort. Here are three past examples that can be modified for use today for any issue:
Play #1: Frame the reform effort as a statewide campaign for school improvement. Translated for today, this suggests advocates need to describe and talk about whatever their idea is about in a broad way so people can understand its importance.
Play #7: Propose a dedicated revenue source that can fully fund the reform package and that is also straightforward and simple to explain to the public. In other words, figure out a way to pay for what you want — because that makes it easier for lawmakers to adopt.
Play #10: Organize statewide blue-ribbon committees to engage “grasstops” stakeholders. It’s important to get community leaders — including business leaders — invested in what you want to do to get it done.
Play #19: Lobby legislators in person. Arguably, it’s much different for a governor to put the pinch on a legislator than a grassroots activist, but developing personal relationships is key to political success.
On June 28, 1984, after a lot of work by a lot of people, Riley signed the Education Improvement Act into law.
In an afterword in the book, the former governor, now 90, explained that education was languishing in South Carolina when he took office in 1979: “We needed comprehensive change to overcome the generations of underachievement in public education, as well as the painful legacy of segregation — barely a decade past — that had severely limited opportunities for so many of our citizens …
“We needed a people’s movement, a statewide campaign for school improvement that could overcome a history of low expectations, inertia and active opposition to the fundamental, far-reaching changes that were needed. It was this statewide campaign, paired with our comprehensive legislative strategy, that led to the bill becoming law.”
In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Riley to be U.S. Secretary of Education, where he served until 2001. In 2008, Time magazine named him as one of the top 10 best ever cabinet members in U.S. history.
This education playbook is seriously important as a guide for how to get things done. You can buy it online for $24.99 starting Jan. 31 at furman.bncollege.com.
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of the Charleston City Paper and Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.