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How SSWAA Got to Be a National Advocacy Leader



By Myrna Mandlawitz


I was so delighted when SSWAA Executive Director Rebecca Oliver invited me to take a stroll down Memory Lane in honor of SSWAA's 30th anniversary!  My credentials?  From 1999 to 2020, I had the privilege to represent SSWAA and school social work in Washington, DC, before Congress and federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice. 

 

SSWAA was my first client as a policy and legislative consultant in Washington and remains near and dear to my heart.  But when I first started out in 1999, I learned a quick and many times difficult lesson: very few people in Congress or even the Education Department had heard of or understood school social work.  Sure, they knew about "social workers," but for most folks, they equated "SW in schools" with child protective services or perhaps someone a child might encounter in a day or residential treatment program.  The idea there was such a being as a "school social worker" was new information! 

 

Clearly I had my work cut out to explain some parts of the country (you know who you are!) had institutionalized school social work over many years, dating back to settlement houses and visiting teachers.  Other parts of the country were not so fortunate, and therefore, their representatives in Congress – and even other national education organizations – were not familiar with the title and the work.

 

The U.S. Department of Education had one tiny grant program, the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program, first funded in 2000 as a demonstration program and continued until the last round of funding in 2015.  The program was designed to provide money for school districts to hire school social workers, school psychologists, and school counselors, but by virtue of its name ("School Counseling Program") and with no real clarification from the Education Department, many school districts were reluctant to use funds for anyone other than school counselors.  Some administrators thought—without really understanding the scope of practice and training of the various professionals—"Why hire school social workers when school counselors can probably do it all?"




 

So how did we get from little or no recognition of the who and the what of school social work to where all the talk in DC is about the need for more highly qualified school mental health professionals – school counselors, school psychologists AND (finally!) school social workers? 

 

My role in all of this was to begin to move SSWAA into every conversation in Washington about education – and not just special education!  The way it's done in DC – and often also at the state and local levels – is through partnerships and coalitions of like-minded organizations....and SSWAA joined them all!  Then, through those relationships, SSWAA started appearing all over Capitol Hill and the federal agencies.  Wherever and whenever I learned of opportunities to insert school social work into a conversation, I did my best to get SSWAA to the table and meet the right people.  Pretty soon, to quote a famous Broadway show, we were "in the room where it happens,"  and when other advocates and congressional and agency staff saw me coming, they knew the school social workers had arrived!

 

As I was set to retire from my 20+ years with SSWAA, Rebecca asked if I would speak to the lobbyist who would be taking my place, including sharing in which coalitions SSWAA participated.  At that point, SSWAA was actively engaged in 16 national coalitions ranging from groups advocating for more Medicaid funding in schools, addressing serious personnel shortages, and examining school safety to coalitions dedicated to literacy, foster care, and loan forgiveness.  Having SSWAA at all those tables elevated the profession overall and more specifically ensured other education professions were aware of the importance of partnership with the organization.

 

One of our most important connections was through the Committee for Education Funding (CEF), the oldest and largest Washington coalition  – over 100 national organizations from early childhood through lifelong learning – dedicated to the sole purpose of increasing the overall federal investment in education.  I had participated for a number of years in CEF for another organization before joining SSWAA, was on the board for many years, and served in almost every capacity including president.  Each time I introduced myself over the years in any CEF meetings and in innumerable CEF Hill and Department meetings, I got to say I represented school social workers and got to explain who they are and why they are so critically important to students' success.  CEF lobbied for education funds that could be used for school social work services, and, often at my prompting for even greater "oomph," included school social work as an example in letters to the Hill of what vital services those extra dollars would support.




 

Also extremely important was SSWAA's role in the National Alliance of Specialized Instructional Support Personnel (NASISP, originally National Alliance of Pupil Services Organizations), which I served for many years as a co-chair, again giving SSWAA  entree to high-level meetings on the Hill, the White House, and the Department of Education.  NASISP represents all the folks in schools known as SISP under the Every Student Succeeds Act and as related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  It is really SSWAA's most logical and comfortable home in DC.

 

Closing the loop, it's great to hear "school social work" wherever I go these days.  Sadly, the profession has been elevated due in no small part to the awakening among schools, families, members of Congress, and the U.S. Surgeon General of the youth mental health crisis.  I believe all the hard work SSWAA has done over the last 30 years is now coming to fruition, as school districts around the country vie for grants to assist in hiring the most highly qualified school mental health professionals – school social workers. 

 

My greatest hope is that SSWAA continues to advocate for many years to come – to ensure schools, families, and particular lawmakers understand every school must have sufficient numbers of school social workers, so students will be mentally healthy and prepared to meet all the challenges of school and life!

 

Congratulations, SSWAA!  Keep up the great work!

 

Myrna Mandlawitz - SSWAA Former Government Relations Director




MYRNA R. MANDLAWITZ, M.ED., J.D.


As president of MRM Associates, LLC, Myrna Mandlawitz serves as legislative consultant to a number of national organizations. She has worked in Washington for over 30 years as a consultant/lobbyist on special and general education policy and legislation and represented the School Social Work Association of America for 20 years. Ms. Mandlawitz is a former president of the Committee for Education Funding and is currently serving as a co-chair of the National Alliance of Specialized Instructional Support Personnel. Before starting MRM Associates, she worked as Director of Government Relations for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.


A native of Virginia, Ms. Mandlawitz spent fourteen years as a classroom teacher and assisted in the development of Virginia's special education program for infants and toddlers with disabilities. She holds a master's degree in Early Childhood Education from Boston University and a law degree from Temple University.



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