Retirement Tribute                             Online Exclusive


‘One of the Best Gifts I

Had Working at AASA’



Paul Houston

Over the 14 years I worked with Bruce Hunter, we had many discussions. They were all fun, most were interesting, and a few were profound. Most could not be repeated in polite company. But the fact is he gave me the best advice I received while I was executive director of AASA.

Early on, Bruce told me that professional associations and association leaders had to make a choice. They had to decide if they were there to represent the powers that be to their members or were they there to represent their members to the powers that be. The first would lead to acceptance in the beltway — invitations to the White House for official events and the like. The latter was a lonelier road but would lead to keeping a clear conscience. That little tidbit came home to me when I was in the office of one of the U.S. secretaries of education who told me I needed to get my members in line and tell them what they needed to do. I laughed and told the secretary I was there to do that to him.

That thought was never far from my mind. It came into sharp relief when the No Child Left Behind Act was proposed. It was a bipartisan bill that was pushed after the horrific events of 9/11. The nation was in a mood to pull together and what better way than to make a major effort toward improving education. Even its name “No Child Left Behind” screamed for acceptance and support. (Some may remember it was an appropriation of Marion Wright Edelman’s plea to leave no child behind. Well, I am pretty sure she remembers it was her words — even though the bill and its aftermath was the farthest thing from her intentions.)

Bruce came into my office and we went over the major points being offered. Neither of us could believe what a horrible idea it was — lumping special-needs students into the assessment, creating a “highly qualified teacher” requirement that was long on good intentions but not reality based and an assessment program that called for disaggregating the data (the one good idea in the bill) but created an expectation for improvement that would lead more schools each year to appear to be failing.

Bearing in mind Bruce’s sage advice, I asked him what our members thought. He said the Legislative Committee hated it and thought we should blow it up. Up to that time, no major education group in Washington had ever opposed an ESEA reauthorization. We decided to follow our members and represent their thoughts to the powers that be.

Needless to say, neither of us was invited to the White House again for years to come. In fact, for several years, we had to bear the scorn of our Washington-based colleagues who thought AASA in general — and its executive director and policy leader in particular — had lost its collective mind. It was with more than a little satisfaction we were able to stay around long enough to see all the other groups start lining up against the bill, years too late. But we were able to say “I told you so,” and we did with great relish. Bruce seemed to take particular glee in pointing that out at every turn.

This little episode says a lot about who Bruce Hunter is. He is a wise man who feels his job is to serve the members. He taught a fledgling executive director that lesson as well. He also is courageous and willing to be shunned if he believes it is the right thing to do. His service to AASA has been exemplary, and he is one of a kind. When he leaves, he will not be replaced even if his job is refilled.

In addition to his sage advice, Bruce paid me one of the best compliments I received while at AASA. Not long after getting there, Bruce came into my office and said, “You didn’t come here to be executive director did you? You came here to get something done.” And I can say the same for Bruce — he got things done and never worried about his title or his job security. If it was good for the members, it was the right thing to do.

Several years ago, he told me if he was still working when he reached a certain age, I should shoot him. Now it is good that I am a non-violent man who doesn’t own a gun because Bruce is still there several years past what he considered his “sell by” date. So while I can’t oblige him, I am sure some of his Wyoming buddies would be glad to step up if he ever said that to them! I know Bruce was one of the best gifts I had working at AASA.

Paul Houston served as AASA executive director between 1994 and 2008. E-mail: phouston@jesserodriguez.com



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