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Working with the Legislature

If we have a reasonable working relationship with our legislators, or at least know who they are and how to get in touch with them, we will be in a stronger position when we want to support or oppose a piece of legislation that is important to us or if we need to resolve a problem with a government agency or official. Here is basic information on how a bill becomes a law, how to contact legislators and develop a working relationship with legislators, and how to testify at a legislative hearing.

Identifying Federal and State Legislators

State legislatures and the US Congress have jurisdiction over fairly distinct although somewhat overlapping areas of the government. The role of the federal government in education is very limited; the vast majority of laws concerning education are passed by state legislatures. It does not work well to ask the federal government to pass laws to take care of us or solve our problems, such as those that are supposed to protect parental rights.

Wisconsin citizens are represented in the Wisconsin Legislature by one representative who is a member of the Assembly and serves a two-year term and one senator who serves a four-year term. For their names, addresses, and phone numbers, call your local library or call the Legislative Hotline at 800-362-9472 (in Madison, 266-9960). Or visit: http://www.legis.state.wi.us

In case it is needed, here is information about the US Congress. American citizens are represented by one representative who is a member of the US House of Representatives and serves a two-year term, and two senators who are members of the US Senate and serve a six-year term. As of 2008, there are eight congressional districts in Wisconsin, each represented by one US Representative. Everyone in Wisconsin is represented by the same two Senators. To find the names of your US Representative and Senators, call your local library, use a computer service that lists such information, or look in the government section of the phone book under United States Government.

Because we often contact legislators so we can share our ideas and concerns about legislation currently before the Legislature, here is a brief review of the legislative process followed by information on ways of contacting legislators.

How a Bill Becomes a Law

Remember that laws are not the only (or even necessarily the best) means of maintaining rights and responsibilities. (For more on this, see the WPA handbook, Chapter 23). Also, it is seldom, if ever, a good idea for a small minority that does not have much money or power (such as homeschoolers) to try to initiate legislation and get it passed. It is difficult for a minority to get the necessary support for legislation. The process often backfires as the initial legislation is amended and the law that passes ends up working against, rather than for, its initial sponsors. Initiating legislation in one area can easily serve as a catalyst that opens other areas of the law to change, areas we do not want changed. In addition, much of the legislation that might be proposed regarding homeschooling would undermine our homeschooling freedoms.

Keeping these points in mind, let's consider the process by which a bill becomes a law in Wisconsin. A similar process is followed in passing federal legislation.

1. When legislators have an idea for a new law or a change in an existing law, they have it drafted as a bill. The Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) drafts most bills, although the Legislative Council Service (LCS) does some.

2. One or more legislators introduce the bill by having the Chief Clerk of the Assembly or Senate, or both, record it, assign it a number, and, usually, assign it to a legislative committee. At this point the bill must become available to the general public; before this it can be kept a secret.

3. Hearings are not required, but at least one is held on most bills. The chairperson of the appropriate committee schedules the hearing, so chairpersons have considerable power in deciding whether a bill gets a hearing, how quickly this happens, and whether the full committee votes on it. Hearings are open to the public, and anyone may speak and/or register for or against the bill. The committee goes into executive session (during which only committee members may speak) to amend and vote on the bill. This may happen on the same day as the hearing or later. If the bill is controversial or the hearing draws a large number of people, the chairperson will often delay the executive session. Amendments to the bill made by legislators during executive session or later can result in a much different bill than the one considered at the public hearing.

4. The Committee on Rules schedules the bill for floor debate in the Assembly or the Senate. A bill can die in this committee if it is not scheduled. Toward the end of a legislative session, this happens fairly often.

5. The bill is debated and voted on by the full Assembly or Senate and passed or defeated with or without amendments.

6. The bill goes to the other house of the Legislature and steps three, four, and five are repeated. If the bill is amended further in the second house, either it goes back to the first house so the new amendments can be considered or it goes to a conference committee to resolve the differences between the versions from the two houses. Once the same version of the bill passes both houses, it goes to the governor for signature.

7. The bill becomes law when signed by the governor. If the governor vetoes the bill, both houses of the Legislature must override the veto by a two-thirds majority for the bill to become law.

Making Initial Contacts with Legislators

Among the ways to contact a legislator are the following:

  • Many legislators have open meetings with their constituents. Call the legislator's office in your district to find out when and where such meetings are held.
  • A letter of introduction can be written. If you send your letter by e-mail, mention in the subject that you are a constituent and include your street address and city or town in the message.
  • Make an appointment to meet legislators at their offices either in your district or in the capitol in Madison.
  • Invite legislators to speak to your support group. Groups that include more than one district sometimes invite a senator and several representatives.

Whatever approach is chosen, legislators will be more likely to support good homeschooling laws if they have had positive encounters with homeschoolers as real people, not just as statistics. A particularly good time to get to know legislators is while they are candidates for election or re-election. (Representatives are elected in November of even-numbered years. Senators from odd-numbered districts will be elected in 2010 and 2014, those from even-numbered districts in 2008 and 2012, etc.) But if there will not be an election within the next few months, don't wait for the next one to get to know your legislators.

Among the topics you may want to discuss with your legislators are the following.

  • Wisconsin's homeschooling law is working very well. (Consider sharing some personal experiences and reasons you appreciate having such a reasonable law.)
  • Thousands of homeschooled children in Wisconsin enter or re-enter conventional schools each year with no problem. This gives concrete evidence that the homeschooling law is working well.
  • The law balances the state's interest in ensuring that children do not grow up to become a burden on the state, parents' rights to choose an education for their children that is consistent with their principles and beliefs, and children's rights to a quality education consistent with their needs and abilities. For more information to share with your legislators, see Chapter 28 of the WPA handbook.
  • The law holds homeschooling parents accountable. See Chapter 28 of the handbook. Homeschools need to meet the same standards and criteria as other private schools. Each year they must submit a signed form to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), attesting that they are in compliance with the law, are providing 875 hours of instruction and a sequentially progressive curriculum in the required subjects, and are not attempting to circumvent the compulsory school attendance law. Homeschoolers can be prosecuted for truancy, a criminal offense punishable by fines and/or imprisonment.
  • There is no evidence that the homeschooling law needs to be changed. Further regulation would be harmful and would unnecessarily restrict the flexibility that homeschools need to operate effectively. Despite these facts, the DPI and other parts of the educational establishment try to gain greater control over homeschools, sometimes through legislation that would serve their self-interests at the expense of homeschoolers.
  • Share with your legislator the information in Chapter 24 of the handbook. Explain the kinds of legislation that homeschoolers don't want. This will probably surprise many legislators and aides, because most people who contact legislators want them to do something, often introduce legislation. However, homeschoolers do not want government money because they realize that money would be accompanied by increased regulation by the government, a price they are not willing to pay.

Other sections of the handbook give more detail and support for these points and ideas for other topics to discuss. You may also find it helpful to ask your legislators whether they have questions or concerns about homeschooling. The handbook will help you be better prepared to answer questions. Offer to find answers to questions you can't answer and to send them more information if they are interested. Ask your legislators for their support in maintaining the current homeschooling law without change. Ask them what their position is on homeschooling and on Wisconsin's homeschooling law.

Contacting Legislators to Discuss a Specific Bill

When you hear about a bill relating to homeschooling or another topic that concerns you, it is time to act, whether or not you have previously contacted your legislators. The first step is to make sure that you have accurate information about the bill and what it will and will not do. Do not act quickly on the basis of rumors or scanty information, even if you hear there is a legislative emergency. Take time to make sure the information you have received is accurate and it comes from a reliable source. If possible, get a copy of the bill from http://www.legis.state.wi.us/. Read and interpret the bill yourself and discuss it with others. Check with other homeschoolers in your district to be sure you are working together and not at cross purposes. Give information that you gather to your WPA Regional Coordinator so that it can be shared with others.

When you are confident that you have accurate information about the bill and know where you stand on the issues involved, contact your legislators. If you use email, mention in the subject that you are a constituent and include your street address and city or town in the message. In writing, you can begin by identifying yourself, your work, community, position, etc. State your concern or request, identifying the bill by number and general subject. Thank your legislators for any previous help. Briefly and factually state the main arguments to support your position. Choose arguments that your legislator is most likely to agree with even if they are not the most important points to you. It is fine to indicate how the bill would affect your family but even better if you can indicate how it would affect others as well. Assume that your letter will be read and acted upon. Be reasonable and courteous, and do not use threats. Do not use exaggerated or misleading information. Ask your legislators to tell you their views on the bill in question and to notify you when a hearing is scheduled. Close with a note of thanks and your full name and postal address.

If your legislators respond favorably, send a letter of appreciation.

If you want to talk with your legislators, you can call their offices or call the Legislative Hotline (800-362-9472; in Madison, 266-9960) and ask to have them call you. Plan your call before you dial by listing the issues you want to cover and rehearsing if you like. When you call, identify yourself. If your legislators are busy or not available, you may talk with an aide, which is fine. Be friendly and courteous. Give the specific reason for your call, and say you would like your legislator to work for (or against) the bill. Stick to the facts. If your legislators or their aides disagree, listen carefully to determine their real objection. Explore disagreements but don't argue. If they ask a question you can't answer, offer to find out and call back. Ask your legislators if they will work and vote for (or against) the bill. Close with a thank you.

How to Participate in a Legislative Committee Hearing

Hearings are held to provide information and perspective on pending legislation for legislators and for the public record. Your attendance is very important, whether you speak or not. You can simply register for or against the bill on a form provided at the hearing. The following suggestions are for people who want to testify at a hearing.

  • Learn as much as you can about the bill as soon as it is introduced. You can get a copy from your legislator or through the Legislative Hotline (800-362-9472; in Madison, 266-9960) or from the Documents Room (608-266-2400) or from the Wisconsin Legislature's web site. Find out the name(s) of the committee(s) that are holding the hearing. Legislator's web sites have helpful information on their backgrounds, including their occupations, volunteer work, affiliations, interests, and the geographical area they represent.
  • Contact your WPA Regional Coordinator and other homeschoolers for their ideas. Find out who else is testifying and coordinate the subjects each of you will cover or select a few representatives from your group to testify. Review your draft testimony with others.
  • Verify the date, time, and place the hearing will be held by calling the Legislative Hotline.
  • When you arrive at the hearing, fill out a registration form indicating that you are speaking or registering “for” (if you support the bill), “against” (if you oppose it), or “for information only” (if you will be providing testimony and will not take a position either for or against the bill).
  • Address the chairperson and committee members as “Mr./Ms./Mrs./Miss Chairperson and Members of the Committee.” Thank them for holding the hearing and for the privilege of speaking. Be polite and respectful. Make your points briefly but with enough detail and emphasis to be understood and remembered. Time limits for speakers will be determined by the number of people who want to speak and the length of the hearing. Plan to speak for three to five minutes, but be prepared to shorten your presentation if requested.
  • State that you are speaking for yourself only, unless you have been explicitly authorized to speak for a support group or another organization. Being a member of an organization such as WPA does not authorize you to speak for that organization or to claim to represent it. To promote unity among homeschoolers and to help ensure that unnecessary changes are not made in the current homeschooling law, avoid highlighting either your personal “credentials” (degrees, teacher certification, etc.) or your use of standardized tests or other standards of acceptability related to public schools. Such references may lead committee members to conclude that all homeschoolers should have these credentials or follow these practices and/or that homeschoolers would not object to the state's requiring such credentials or practices.
  • Be prepared to answer questions from committee members and to respond to testimony from speakers who disagree with you and are critical of homeschooling. It may help you prepare for such questions to talk with other homeschoolers and read this book.
  • Since hearings are public meetings, the information you give, including answers to questions, becomes a matter of record and may be used by the committee and others in developing a position on an issue. Therefore, it is a good idea to give a written copy of your testimony to the chairperson before or after your presentation and also to keep a copy for your records. It may prove useful if your testimony later becomes a matter of debate or is forgotten or not used. Include on the written copy the name of the committee holding the hearing; the bill number and topic; the date, time, and location of the hearing; and your name and contact information.
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