Federal Dateline

Lip Service or Real Attention?

by NICHOLAS A. PENNING


Congressman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has an odd suggestion for school leaders' priority lists this year. At AASA's 21st annual We Care legislative conference this fall, he said educators ought to include campaign finance reform among their chief concerns.

The idea seemed startling at first to those of us in attendance. Here we were, gathered to talk about the outlook for public education, and one of the most powerful and respected Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives brings up campaign finances.

We began to see where he was going. To run for Congress, to even consider such a move, an individual requires access to big bucks. Just getting petitions signed to win your political party’s endorsement, to get your name on the ballot and to let folks know who you are requires ready access to money.

Money is what most people use to get on with the ordinary pace of life: mortgage, food, clothing, transportation, safety. Who among us could set aside a whopping amount of cash or foolishly take out a loan to run for political office? Plain and simple, we can’t.

Dollar Power
So instead of citizen legislators, as our Founding Fathers intended (who were white, male, wealthy, free landowners, Rangel reminded us), we have a system that requires up to $1 million just to run for a seat in the U.S. House. If you should win, you theoretically join the club of 435 congressmen and congresswomen, each of whom represent more than 600,000 citizens.

The concept is theoretical because, in all likelihood, you owe your election to a few folks with fat wallets. They invested their money in you because you looked like a winner and because they want to have your ear on what they identify as the burning issue of the day, whether an inconspicuous segment of a tax bill, highway bill or farm bill.

I once worked for a member of the House of Representatives who later went on to the Senate, Paul Simon, D-Ill. He based his advocacy for an end to free-flowing private money in exchange for publicly financed campaigns on this real scenario: A House member returns to the office late at night following an arduous day of committee hearings, floor votes, visits with constituents and signing of numerous letters drafted by the staff. The House member has waiting on the desk a thick stack of phone messages. Among them two or three names stand out. Each donated a lot of money to the last campaign. Whom do you think the House member calls first?

Just to keep their names before the public, House members constantly must be in the public eye. That means a lot of money for TV ads, newspaper ads, campaign fliers, bumper stickers and staged rallies.

The point here is that those AASA represents, the chief executive officers of our public schools, have no big bucks. Children, their constituents, have no money to contribute, no time to volunteer. They don’t even have a vote.

Elevating Your Voice
This is a time when the men and women who would represent us are beginning to put on a full court press to gain our attention. And education and children are always attention-grabbers: "I’m for education; for better schools; for a better tomorrow." It’s always in their commercials, their brochures. They use us to win public favor and then look the other way. With rich men, who have no contact with workaday folks, where do kids fit in?

It’s your job to make sure those children’s voices are heard, to keep education and your successes high among the nation’s priorities. We need the resources to equip our students with user-friendly buildings and classrooms and with teachers who ignite the thirst to learn.

You have no big checkbook, but you do have a respected voice in your community. Join the AASA Legislative Corps (npenning@aasa.org) so you can keep up-to-date on the congressional issues that have an impact on education. Then you can make that all-important and timely phone call when our issue is about to come to a vote. And if you see a candidate whom you know is committed to our cause, get involved in his or her campaign. You want to be on their call-back list. And if you’re a pest about it, you will be.

Nick Penning is a senior legislative analyst for AASA. E-mail: npenning@aasa.org