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Feature                                                   Pages 23-29

 

Front-Line Advocacy 

Four school system leaders on working to effect legislative change and federal support

EDITOR'S NOTE: School Administrator invited four veteran school system leaders who’ve been active in legislative advocacy, often in conjunction with AASA, to describe a particular aspect of their experiences and what makes them productive players in the advocacy arena.

Advocacy Based on Effective Relationships 

BY BENNY L. GOODEN

Benny Gooden
Benny Gooden (right) visits with Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe during an awards presentation.

When AASA and other membership organizations try to engage individuals in advocacy, a frequent exhortation is “Contact your representatives in Congress.” Professional membership groups also stress that written communication is more powerful than phone calls to a representative’s office, and they encourage personalizing the message for maximum impact. Recent security concerns relating to congressional mail has made e-mail a preferred form of contact for most Capitol Hill offices.

While all these suggestions are true and can make professional groups more effective in promoting specific positions, my three decades of involvement with members of Congress has helped me to realize that writing letters, sending e-mail messages and making periodic phone calls are only small pieces of effective advocacy. When all is said and done, advocacy on the federal level begins and ends with continuous relationships between school leaders and members of Congress and their staffs.

There are two important aspects of lasting relationships with members of Congress. The first involves getting to know the representative early in the service. This involves meeting informally during campaign appearances before the candidate is elected and continues at every opportunity when the successful legislator visits in the local community.

This process is nonthreatening and provides opportunities to give congressional representatives a local perspective on public school successes. Every contact should end with an invitation to visit local schools when time permits. Local schools provide good photo opportunities — especially when tied to an accomplishment involving local students or to a particular issue that shows how schools benefit from federal support.

Connecting local school leaders to congressional offices in Washington requires a methodical plan, and AASA staff can help with this. The letters or e-mails directed to members of Congress on specific and timely issues are often little more than documents to be addressed by staff with a perfunctory reply stating, “Thank you for contacting me. Be assured that I will consider your concerns when this matter is under review.” Frequent contacts may guarantee your name will be recognized, but unless a direct connection is made to someone “real” in the local school district or at the state level, the correspondence may be relegated to the office file.

Appointed Rounds
Years ago, I began the habit of visiting Washington once or twice each year. Sometimes this was associated with AASA’s advocacy conference, but often it involved other opportunities to be in the city. I always schedule at least one day or parts of two days to visit congressional offices of my senators and representatives.

Because I’m from Arkansas, a small state, I also try to visit the offices of other representatives from my state. We schedule appointments in advance and specifically ask to meet with the elected official or the staff member assigned to education. Scheduling can be a tedious process as the scheduler attempts to work around committee meetings, voting sessions or out-of-town trips. Tenacity will usually secure an appointment, though it still may not happen. Nevertheless, your presence in the office for a meeting with key staff will pay dividends — with or without the House or Senate member present.

A succinct agenda of issues with pertinent talking points will make a half-hour meeting productive and reinforce the written messages preceding your visit. This is a great opportunity to build rapport and establish the basis for future contacts on timely issues. Following up the visit with a summary letter can further strengthen the connection.

A Capitol Hill visit is not a onetime event but part of a series of conversations in which local school leaders, members of Congress and their key staff members become familiar with federal issues and how they affect local schools.

Viewpoints Differ
Developing long-term relationships with members of Congress and their key staff members sometimes carries unusual twists. I once took a weekend call from a U.S. senator who was soliciting feedback on a pending modification to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. On numerous occasions, I have fielded calls from House or Senate staff members to clarify the effects of proposed legislation on local schools. I also seek opportunities to host visits here in western Arkansas by congressional staff when they are making unrelated trips to the area. None of these contacts would have occurred nor could they have been effective without investing in the relationships over time.

What if members of Congress oppose my position or that of AASA? It is important in developing a relationship to understand that sometimes it is not possible to secure congressional support for a desired position. A simple difference of philosophy, or a clearly partisan commitment by the legislator, must not be allowed to sever the connection. Opponents on some issues can be allies on others. A fertile relationship nurtured over time can yield benefits and facilitate long-term gains.

READ MORE:

Front-Line Advocacy, Grimesey

Front-Line Advocacy, Goering

Front-Line Advocacy, Smith

Bruce Hunter on AASA's message deliveryman

Advocacy is a process, not an event. Local school leaders who build positive relationships with elected officials and their legislative staffs can complement the good work of AASA staff in supporting public education on a federal level. The connections you make can result in a clearer message and help it stand out among the myriad of issues on the congressional agenda.

Benny Gooden, AASA president-elect, is superintendent of the Fort Smith Public Schools in Fort Smith, Ark. E-mail: bgooden@fortsmithschools.org

 

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