Retirement Tribute                           Online Exclusive


Three Decades of Memories




Nick Penning

Bruce and I “traded” jobs in 1986, just about nine months after I’d started at AASA. Bruce’s boss at the Council of Chief School Officers, where Bruce was leaving his post as director of federal relations to become AASA’s director of government relations, was trying to hire me for Bruce’s job. I later figured out the reason he was seeking me was to counter AASA’s success in taking Bruce away from him.

I lasted five weeks at the council and called Bruce to see if he’d be willing to hire me back. We met, and he agreed. All he asked was to be straight and loyal. I was extremely grateful as my brief experience across town quickly showed that I had made a terrible mistake in leaving AASA, which had been the best job of my life (next to Saturday night projectionist at the Colonial Theater in Colfax, Ill., for $7.50 a week).

Before I accompanied Bruce on my first excursion to Capitol Hill, I had heard the story of how he and Joe Scherer, a fellow AASA staff member, had received a phone call from the top aide to Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., to get to the Senate chamber fast (it was almost midnight at the time) because a “must pass” bill was about to leave the station. The aide supposedly said, “If you want that LEAD leadership bill for school administrators, you better get down here fast!”

The negotiations in the Senate lasted until almost 4 a.m., but Bruce’s workday was just getting started. As he tells it, “we had a command appearance” in the office of House Education and Labor Committee Chair Gus Hawkins, D-Calif., at 8:30 that morning “to explain why we had attached an amendment to the Head Start Reauthorization when Chairman Hawkins wanted a clean bill.” After Hawkins finished expressing his displeasure with his actions, Bruce returned home and took a nap. But he could do so fully satisfied that he drove funds to the Leadership for Educational Administration Development Act for professional development for school leaders around the country. 

Recollections Galore
I hold several vivid memories of Bruce’s advocacy work in action, in no particular order:

Meeting with a group of disability advocates, where one of the group laughingly referred to Bruce as a “slime bag” for his tête–à–tête standoffs over policy positions. (By the end of the meeting, the group agreed to work together with Bruce and AASA on a policy issue before Congress.)

Bruce speaking out of turn in what was supposed to be strictly a “photo opportunity with Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to ask that Byrd ensure the federal tax exemption for state and local sales taxes be retained in the 1986 tax reform bill that was still in process.

Bruce urged that action because, amid the real estate backlash of the ‘80s, state and local sales taxes were the most likely to win favor from voters, offering a potential source of state and/or local education funding. Those chances were even better if a federal income taxpayer knew those sales taxes still could be deducted on individual tax returns. Bruce fought hard for retaining the sales tax deduction, making frequent trips to lobby the tax aide to the influential Democratic senator from New Jersey, Bill Bradley;

Bruce assigning me to take the lead policy aide for Byrd, the Senate majority leader, to Pittsburgh to meet the head of the teachers union and Superintendent Richard Wallace. This was key piece of his strategy to win support for federal legislation that would allow administrators to establish a school that would function similar to a teaching hospital, improving and invigorating teachers from across the district.

Wallace, who chaired the AASA Committee for Federal Policy, operated a high school in Pittsburgh, where 90 percent of the district’s high school teachers rotated in for eight weeks of teaching with peer observation by master teachers, followed by feedback for improvement.

Byrd’s top aide was most impressed and carried the idea back to her boss, who introduced a bill along the lines of Bruce’s recommendation.

Being called with Bruce to an urgent meeting in the Capitol with powerful (and aging) House Rules Committee Chair Claude Pepper, D-Fla., who made a rambling request to help poor minority children. We left the meeting scratching our heads but felt privileged to have been able to sit down with a congressional legend.

Watching Bruce engage in a fierce toe-to-toe encounter in the Senate education subcommittee office with the lobbyist for community colleges over the relative importance of Pell Grants vs. Title I appropriations. Pell Grants are entitlements with mandatory appropriations. Title I is not, and thus funds for disadvantaged children in K-12 education are subject to the annual whims of both parties in both chambers of Congress. Bruce won the argument;

Bruce accompanying to the Hill Jule Sugarman, former cabinet official in the Lyndon Johnson White House and a founder of Head Start, who was the principal author of a proposal to guarantee funds for child-serving programs via his Children’s Investment Trust. Bruce had arranged advocacy meetings in the offices of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee Chair Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., and his fellow committee member Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., both of whom agreed to help.

Rangel subsequently arranged for us to meet with his determinedly opposed Ways and Means tax aide, who pushed back on Rangel’s agreement to take action on Sugarman’s trust proposal. (“My boss may say he likes it, but I don’t!”) So Rangel and his committee took no action;

Tagging along with Bruce to a supposedly promising meeting Sugarman had arranged with former Reagan political aide and private-sector consultant Ed Rollins, who (sporting a gold watch, a gold bracelet and gold-speckled glasses) boasted that his firm could put the Children’s Investment Trust at the top of the newspaper, TV and political agenda … for $50,000!

Nick Penning retired in 2011 after 26 years on the AASA federal relations staff. E-mail: njpenning@yahoo.com


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