• Morgan Craven, J.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2020 •
On any given day, nearly any member of the public is able to walk into a state Capitol building. The buildings themselves are supposed to function as open centers where elected officials and their constituents can interact and address important issues. But, like in almost every other system in our lives, COVID-19 has threatened to intensify the already-inequitable access to our state legislatures.
Of course, states should put in place measures to protect the health of individuals and the public. But, if those protections are not intentionally coupled with measures to ensure safe access to policymaking spaces, they could harm the ability of communities of color, immigrant communities, poor communities, and others who have been historically marginalized and excluded to influence the decisions that impact their lives.
A recent analysis of individuals who control major systems and industries in the United States – including federal legislative, executive and judicial bodies, higher education, and the criminal legal system – shows the extreme racial and cultural disconnect between the people who hold power in those spaces and the people who are impacted by their decisions (Lu, et al., 2020).
For example, although 40% of the people in this country identify as people of color, only 25% of current U.S. Supreme Court justices are people of color (only six since 1789 have not been white men), only one person of color heads a university ranked in the top 25, and only nine of our 100 U.S. Senators are people of color.
The decisions about access to policy deliberations during the pandemic should be made with a careful focus on ensuring equity and correcting outdated and discriminatory practices that keep historically-marginalized communities out of policymaking spaces.
These extreme under-representations exist at all levels. The majority of the Texas legislature, for example, is white. In the 2019 legislative session 36% were people of color in a state where 58% of the population (Ura & Cameron, 2019) and 72% of K-12 public school students are people of color (TEA, 2019). And, many advocates have observed a similar lack of diversity within the education advocacy community (Craven, 2019).
Why does this matter? Good policymaking requires a diversity of thought and experiences and a fair representation of constituents. Education policymaking, in particular, shapes school spaces that are fundamental to ensuring the health, safety, liberty, and opportunities for individuals and communities. People must have an equal say in the decisions that impact their schools, not only through elected positions, but as advocates who have meaningful access to elected officials, even during a pandemic. When they do not, legislators can make harmful and uninformed decisions that widen opportunity gaps and harm students (Craven, 2019).
How Legislatures Should Adapt to COVID-19
In response to COVID-19, many state legislatures have adopted new practices and procedures, including adjustments to session start times and quorum requirements (Alabama), convenings outside of the Capitol building and voting by proxy (Arkansas), temporary location spaces and virtual meetings (Georgia), and suspension of bill drafting, consideration and passage deadlines (Mississippi) (NCSL, 2020).
But, while many states adjust to ensure access for lawmakers and staff, few seem as focused on ensuring the same access for constituents.
Recommendations to Expand Constituent Access During Legislative Sessions
- State legislatures should provide user-friendly, multilingual online platforms that enable people to testify, watch hearings and participate in meetings remotely. These platforms should be supported by personnel who are able to quickly respond to issues and answer questions from participants. If necessary, additional staff should be hired to operate the systems and ensure the state legislatures’ tracking systems, like the Texas Legislature Online, are updated frequently with hearing and meeting notices and bill histories.
- All legislative offices should post daily meeting logs online if the Capitol is closed to most in-person visitors. The public should be able to easily see who is scheduling, and receiving, meetings with legislative offices at any time.
- Legislators must be intentional in their outreach to all communities in their districts, particularly those traditionally excluded from policymaking spaces, including people of color, people with limited wealth and incomes, and immigrant individuals and families. Decisions that impact these constituencies should not be made without them.
- State legislatures should ensure translation services are available to assist people who testify in languages other than English, whether virtually or in person.
- Decisions to close Capitol buildings should be transparent and based on the guidance of public health experts, not on the political desires and whims of policymakers. If limited numbers of people are allowed to enter the building, that attendance should be randomized and not result in excluding the families, students and other education equity advocates who may not currently have direct access to lawmakers.
- Advocates and lobbyists with access to Capitol buildings and knowledge about the legislative process should work to ensure others have the same access and knowledge. Advocates should not push forward legislative changes without input from impacted communities and should insist on diverse working groups, meetings and hearings.
No matter what rules are put in place to close state Capitols or limit the scope or duration of legislative sessions, those who have always been granted access to lawmakers will continue to have that access – their personal connections and resources will guarantee that. We should think of policymaking as a critical system in our lives that, like education, housing or healthcare, is susceptible to systemic inequities. Therefore, the decisions about access during the pandemic should be made with a careful focus on ensuring equity and correcting outdated and discriminatory practices that keep historically-marginalized communities out of policymaking spaces.
To learn more about how IDRA works to expand access to state level policymaking, see our new Education Policy Fellows of Color program.
Craven, M. (2019). Skin in the Game: The 86th Texas Legislative Session and the Impact of Advocate Diversity, Texas Education Review, 8(1), 91-101.
Lu, D., Huang, J., Seshagiri, A., Park, H., & GriggsSe, T. (September 10, 2020). Faces of Power: 80% are White, Even as U.S. Becomes More Diverse, New York Times.
NCSL. (September 11, 2020). COVID-19: State Actions Related to Legislative Operations. Denver, Colo.: National Conference of State Legislatures.
TEA. (2019). Pocket Edition: 2018-19 Texas Public School Statistics. Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency.
Ura, A., & Cameron, D. (January 10, 2019). In increasingly diverse Texas, the Legislature remains mostly white and male, Texas Tribune.
Morgan Craven, J.D., is IDRA’s national director of policy, advocacy and community engagement. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2020, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2020 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]