A Game Plan: Superintendents on the Field of Advocacy

Tom Skinner, the former chaplain of the Washington Redskins, once stated that churches frequently operate like football teams: There are 22 people on the field who need some rest and 50,000 in the stands who need some exercise. No one would deny that superintendents function in the middle of the school operations--responsible for leading school reform, balancing budgets, hearing personnel cases, constructing facilities, negotiating with patrons and colleagues, communicating with boards and responding to the media.

However, when it comes to advocacy for public education, have superintendents taken the same central field position? Are we in the middle of the playing field with politicians, policymakers and special-interest groups?

Uncomfortable Role

Historically, for superintendents the goals of administration and advocacy have seemed like mutually exclusive vantage points. While superintendents try to bring all players to the table with the goal of finding common ground with balanced options, the advocate seeks to narrow the focus, clearly differentiate the players from the sideline performers, and, if necessary, stake out ground that is not to be compromised. Advocacy has been viewed as the enemy of balance and, therefore, an impediment to administration.

As a prime example of this phenomenon, I can remember saying during my 20 years as a district and state superintendent: “I want to hire administrators, not advocates.” While this role may be more comfortable and secure, our jobs are far less significant when we spend more time protecting them than doing them.

In reality I have always been an advocate, someone pleading for a cause or proposal. School budgets are 50 percent finance and 50 percent advocacy. Organizational change is part systems and part persuasion. Policy development is the confluence of analysis and argument. Teaching is the science of mastering content and the art of marketing instruction.

School leadership seeks consensus on issues where compromise is required while protecting, at all costs, those values that are fundamental to our work. Part of our role is to take risks, political and professional, that come with stepping into the middle of the field of educational advocacy.

A Common Mission

About a year ago the Virginia Association of School Superintendents and representatives from other education and public policy organizations in the state started to discuss those areas they had in common. Statewide groups representing teachers, principals, superintendents, school board members, college and university presidents, parents, business leaders and elected municipal officials tried to find common ground without compromising the values of their organizations. They refused to let their differences dominate as they sought to collectively advocate a seamless pre-K through graduate school educational system.

With Virginia’s statewide elections scheduled for November 2003 and 140 seats of the General Assembly up for grabs, the informal group galvanized their intent by forming the Alliance for Virginia’s Students ( As the group grew to include student organizations and others who supported advocacy for fully funding preK-12 and higher education, two strategies were developed.

The first was to request that each candidate for General Assembly sign a pledge to support funding for education. The second was to hold a series of 10 statewide public forums in the months leading up to the general election to encourage citizens to speak out about their educational needs. As editorial writer Margaret Edds summarized in the Norfolk-based Virginian-Pilot on the eve of the election, “The aim is to convince lawmakers that there is a groundswell of support for education funding. For months, various government boards and agencies have pointed out funding gaps from kindergarten through college that total $2 billion over years. But it’s easier to ignore data than teachers, principals and moms and dads.”

Of the 204 individuals running for the General Assembly, 142 (70 percent) signed the pledge. As Liz Seymour reported in The Washington Post following a public forum in northern Virginia, a strong majority of those running for the legislature signed a pledge “to support and work for additional state dollars to fully fund the actual costs of the Standards of Quality and the legislature’s guidelines for higher education funding.”

From a tactical vantage point, the pledge was worded not to presume how the legislature would increase revenue for schools. The first question asked by a reporter at the alliance’s initial news conference at the state Capitol was: “Is this in direct conflict with the no-tax-increase pledge that some of the legislators have taken?” The answer was no! The alliance was and is focused on the goal rather than the means. A tax increase is an obvious approach to increasing revenue, but it is not the only approach.

In 2003 a statewide poll conducted by the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute in the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University (, voters indicated a willingness to pay higher taxes if it was dedicated to education. Their responses also reflected a desire to first cut unnecessary services in state government. Of those who said they would pay higher taxes for education, more than 50 percent favored the use of a sales tax.

Calculated Risks

For superintendents, these strategies constituted taking risks. Policymakers typically do not like pledges. While some political figures interpret the approach as hardball, others clearly see it for what it is--focused advocacy for a commonly recognized need. During a public forum in Newport News, Va., Delegate Phil Hamilton admonished, “(Voter) apathy is strangling this commonwealth. It’s going to take activism, not from the top down. … [I]t’s going to have to be a grassroots effort from the bottom up.”

No educational leaders are closer to the grassroots than superintendents and principals. Even with the potential of fallout, when political decisions are being made that affect education, it is absolutely critical for the superintendent to be on the field in the midst of the action, not watching from the security of the bleachers.

Virginia superintendents through their state professional association took a bold leadership role in forming a historic alliance of organizations committed to advancing public education. Superintendents and college and university presidents had learned the value of working together through a successful statewide bond issue for higher education. The evidence of their work could be heard in the strong support of a legislative pledge. However, their most significant accomplishment may be in the creation of this very powerful voice.

William Bosher is dean and distinguished professor of public policy and education at Virginia Commonwealth University, P.O. Box 842020, Richmond, VA 23284. E-mail: He also is executive director of the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute.

The 6 T’s of Public Advocacy

Superintendents who step onto the playing field of public advocacy should take note of some key stages in the process. I’ve summarized them as the 6 T’s of conduct.

  • Talk. Build a base of relationships that have common interests, credibility and commitment. While you may not know what the responses to your efforts will be, you should know the strength of your relationships.

  • Touch. Make personal appeals to the politicians who have an interest in your work. It is most important to help a legislator understand how this initiative will have an impact on his or her constituents. Bring it home.

  • Tout. Solicit votes and patronage from those who make policy and those who influence it. Politics is a fast-paced and unforgiving process, but if you are not lining up support for education, others are seizing the opportunity for their interests.

  • Tally. Accountability is critical to advocacy. Ask for support and then give the public a report card. If you let legislators know what you plan to do with the information before they make a decision, there should be no surprises.

  • Temper. Approach legislators with the full knowledge there will be another day. Bend your sword over a single issue, and it is likely to be of little use in the future. Avoid at all costs the appearance or reality of being politically partisan. When the day is over, you want to be known for best practice, not best politics. If you present plain, clear and consistent information to all parties, they will not spend time trying to find out what you said yesterday.

  • Thank. Whether or not you have won the day, be sure to thank those who were willing to listen. Fermentation is required for most significant policy decisions. Beyond the unrest and agitation is potential victory.