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Retirement Tribute                                Pages 52-55

     

A Deserved Final Bow for

AASA's Chief Advocate

Bruce Hunter retires after 30-plus years of the rough-and-tumble on the Hill lobbying on behalf of public school leaders

BY MICHELLE R. DAVIS

Bruce Hunter has specialized in inside-the-Beltway politics for more than 31 years. He navigates with ease through the maze of the congressional bill-making processes, appropriations and hearings. He knows who really wields the power on Capitol Hill, whether that’s the chair of the education committee or a staff member who has a politician’s ear.

While Hunter, AASA’s associate executive director for advocacy, policy and communications, may know his way around Washington intimately, he is not of Washington. And as he prepares to retire this month, Hunter says he has few regrets about leaving the city where education laws and federal mandates often are handed down without exploration of the consequences to those on the ground working in school districts and classrooms.

“All of my best friends work somewhere in America in the school business,” Hunter says. “I never had to avoid conflict because I thought it would make someone here in Washington unhappy, since my most important reference group has never been here.”

 Bruce Hunter
AASA's Bruce Hunter (right) interacting with Robert McCord of Henderson, Nev., an active 28-year member of the association.
Over the last three decades, the 70-year-old native of Glenrock, Wyo., has seen federal legislation, funding formulas and policy notions come and go, and ideas often get recycled. He’s forged relationships with both Republicans and Democrats, entertained many with his personal stories, and occasionally rubbed some the wrong way with his direct approach and language. But to the end, he’s always efficaciously acted on the views of AASA members, says Mary Kusler, who was hired by Hunter to be a legislative specialist at AASA in 2000 and now directs government relations at the 3-million-member National Education Association.

“I have never met somebody who knew the school business better than he did,” Kusler says. “I’m around education advocates every single day of the week, but nobody has the concept of what is actually happening in school buildings more than he does.”

‘Absolutely Alone’
Hunter’s dedication to promoting the needs of those running the nation’s 13,650 school systems also can translate into stances not always popular in Washington. One of AASA’s most controversial decisions was to not endorse the federal No Child Left Behind Act as it was being passed into law in 2001. Though some other professional groups had concerns about the bipartisan law, there was great pressure from both Republicans and Democrats, as well as the administration of President George W. Bush, to back the legislation, Hunter says.

“We said it wouldn’t work, and we were absolutely alone,” he contends. “Nobody else was with us.”

AASA, the only national organization that didn’t sign on to the sweeping federal legislation, took that position after extensive discussion with its members, particularly the association’s legislative committee. Hunter says superintendents told him the central features of the bill would have unintended consequences, misdirect the work of school districts and create the wrong set of incentives. Many of those fears ultimately became reality.

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One reason for AASA members’ clear views on NCLB, as well as other legislative and fiscal matters, is Hunter’s keen ability to frame policy and legislation in a way that is understandable and helps members see the path such enactments might take from Washington to school classrooms, says Benny L. Gooden, superintendent for 27 years in Fort Smith, Ark., and an active player on legislative affairs.

“Everybody knows that if Bruce tells you something about the federal scene, it’s pretty much spot-on. You can bank on it,” says Gooden, immediate past president of AASA. “He doesn’t speculate.”

That puts Hunter in constant demand on the meeting circuit. He’s spoken at conferences and AASA’s state affiliate events many times during his tenure. “He always explained complicated issues in terms we could easily understand and make sense of,” says 18-year member Darline Robles, the former superintendent in Los Angeles County and Salt Lake City, Utah. “When the legislation comes out, he has the history and knows how it got to that point. He didn’t try to drive our agenda, and he’s a good listener.”

The last quality comes in handy in Washington, where Hunter has “assiduously worked at being bipartisan,” says Jack Jennings, the former president of the Center on Education Policy, who has known Hunter since he came to Washington.

“He doesn’t shut the door to either side,” adds Jennings, a former top staff member on the House committee overseeing education. “Some lobbyists tend to favor one side or another, but Bruce has always put the interests of school districts and administrators first by trying to further those interests with whatever party is in office.”

Personalized Scenarios
Because of his intimate knowledge of the way issues play out in the field, Hunter says he learned over time the most effective way to sway proposed legislation. Rather than personally attempt to influence lawmakers, he arranged for superintendents, usually from far-flung communities of all sizes, to speak directly to the politicians and their key staff members.

A Colorful Character

Just about anyone who has accompanied Bruce Hunter on a visit to Capitol Hill or talked strategy in his office at AASA headquarters would describe him as a “colorful” character. His stories flow easily and endlessly — about growing up in Wyoming, living as the youngest sibling with three sisters, and his consumption of SPAM (a favorite meal in his formative years). His repertoire of anecdotes captures the evolution of advocacy work in Washington over the years since Ronald Reagan was serving his first term in the White House.

He’s also well-known for his direct style, which sometimes is expressed with strong words, says Jeff Simering, director of legislative services at the Council of the Great City Schools. “I don’t know if it’s his upbringing in Wyoming, that cowboy mentality, but he uses fairly colorful language. It can be pretty effective. He can put an interesting spin on a point.”

When he was pressed asked to give a few examples, Simering politely declined. “Most of those examples would be R-rated.”

— Michelle Davis

Unlike many other professional associations and trade groups, when AASA members travel to Capitol Hill to testify before committees, the organization does not write their testimony, preferring that members tell their own stories. Hunter is known for figuring out who in the field would have the most impact and then encouraging them to share their schools’ situation with the most appropriate lawmaker.

More than two years ago, Hunter took advantage of an existing relationship between Gary Amoroso, who was then superintendent of the Lakeville, Minn., school district, and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. When Kline held his first hearing on reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA, Amoroso was a witness, and he provided testimony about the difficulties posed to school districts by the law. Afterward, Hunter arranged for the two men to meet more privately to chat about the issues one on one.

“The fact that these two people knew each other, liked each other and respected each other made our case for flexibility (in ESEA) so strong,” Hunter says. “When the chairman’s bill came out with lots of flexibility for school districts, I wasn’t surprised.”

Victories for Kids
Many of Hunter’s perspectives and his legendary stories stem from his youth. Those tales often touch on his rural upbringing in Wyoming, where the closest house was 30 miles from his own and where he’d spend hours unsupervised with youthful friends at a nearby creek. His mother’s family raised cattle and sheep, and Hunter worked on the ranches as a boy, which taught him applicable lessons for the Washington work world.

“The weather dictates a lot, and what you want may not be what you get,” he says. “You learn to roll with the punches, get the best deal you can and then try again the next time around.”

 Bruce Hunter2
Bruce Hunter has been a popular presenter over the years on the conference circuit among AASA's state affiliates coast to coast.
His early career as a teacher of junior high school social studies and English in Shoshoni, Wyo., also deepened his respect and admiration for educators in rural areas. Before coming to work for AASA, Hunter also trained Head Start teachers in West Texas, taught sociology at Eastern New Mexico University, was a policy analyst and grant administrator for the Education Commission of the States in Denver, Colo., and spent almost a year pushing the legislative agenda for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Those early experiences meant he developed a special affinity for rural school issues — which can be overshadowed by news of urban schools that dominates media headlines. One of Hunter’s biggest professional successes in Washington was his substantive role in conceiving the Rural Education Achievement Program. He persuaded lawmakers to establish and fund the program, which provides modest grants to rural districts.

“I saw that small school districts needed help but didn’t have the administrative capacity to apply for big grants and also didn’t have the capacity to be effective with dollars that were highly targeted with a long list of what you could and couldn’t do with the money,” Hunter says.

He convened a focus group of rural school district leaders who told him they didn’t need large sums of money, just a lot of flexibility. They created the outlines of the program that, at the time, offered up to $50,000 to districts, along with great leeway on how the dollars could be used. Hunter convinced both Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the then-chair of the House education committee, as well as the staff of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who chaired the Senate education committee, to move forward on the rural initiative. It was funded in 2002 under the No Child Left Behind Act. It still exists today to aid school systems with fewer than 600 students.

A Unique Interviewing Style

Over three decades of hiring staff to work on federal advocacy matters at AASA, Bruce Hunter became rather adept at landing young talent. But his interviewing style could be nerve-wracking for the final candidates.

Hunter would generate a lengthy list of challenging questions and ask the interview candidate to answer them all, in any order, in 45 minutes. He also always required a writing sample.

“I try to sit there stone-faced and provide no visual cues,” he says. “It’s always very clear who the best choice should be.”

He’s had candidates walk out of the interview and immediately tell friends they didn’t get the job, only to be offered the position shortly after. “I want people who are quick on their feet,” Hunter says. “If a person can handle that, and write, then you’ve got a winner.”

The stress of the moment was worth it in the long run, says Mary Kusler, who was hired by Hunter to be an assistant in 2000 and now is the director of government relations at the National Education Association. “I can tell you I would not be where I am in my career without him,” she says.

— Michelle Davis

Hunter considers that program just one of his lasting legacies. He was instrumental in the adoption of negotiated rulemaking or “neg reg,” which allows AASA and other education stakeholders to collaborate with the U.S. Department of Education on the initial development of rules governing new education programs. Nick Penning, a former longtime AASA colleague of Hunter’s, called the change “groundbreaking” and said it has affected the reach of new programs.

Hunter’s vigorous Hill advocacy also succeeded in shifting the formula for funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Previously, 25 percent of IDEA federal funding went to the state and 75 percent went to school districts. However, lawmakers altered the distribution, now directing less than 15 percent to the state education agency and about 85 percent of federal IDEA dollars to the local districts. Lawmakers also included a poverty factor in the formula for distributions to school districts because low-income schools often have more students with disabilities — something Hunter strongly advocated for.

Along with other lobbyists, he also worked to change vocational education funding from competitive grants to a formula-driven system, which AASA members believe helps them support all students instead of putting needed dollars toward possibly unproven programs. Similarly, Hunter successfully lobbied to change the percentage of low-income students at which an entire school would qualify for Title I funds from 75 percent, which he considered much too high, to 40 percent.

“These were victories that affected kids by moving dollars to where kids were and by creating better learning environments for them,” Hunter says.

Mutual Admiration
Still, there have been disappointments. Congress has yet to pass a much-overdue reauthorization of ESEA, while full funding for IDEA is unlikely to become reality anytime soon. His successors in the federal advocacy department at AASA can pick up those battles by building on the firm arsenal of strategies and tactics he’s built.

But it’s likely that Hunter, who plans to relocate in about a year to a suburb of Phoenix, Ariz., to watch spring training baseball and spend time with his children and grandchildren, will be remembered more around the halls of Congress for his colorful character, direct manner and devotion to pushing forward the agenda of AASA’s members. That last part, Hunter notes, always has been easy.

“I have such enormous respect for our membership and for school superintendents. I’ve never been asked to do anything for the people who hold those jobs,” Hunter says. “All our policy is aimed at what’s good for kids.”

Michelle Davis is a freelance education writer in Silver Spring, Md.  E-mail: michrdavis@hotmail.com 

 

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