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Feature                                                      Page 40

Federal Advocacy:

A Tradition of Influence and Respect

By GLENN COOK

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AASA presidents and exeutive director at the Stand for Children rally on the national mall on June 1, 1996.

A half century ago, as AASA marked its centennial year, Congress approved a major piece of legislation that has strongly guided the federal role in K-12 education and greatly impacted how the association serves its members.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” provides funding for professional development, instructional materials, parental involvement activities and resources for low-income children in our nation’s schools. Revised several times over the past half century, most recently as the No Child Left Behind Act, it has evolved as the federal role has expanded, especially over the past three decades.

Today, with the federal government taking a stronger-than-ever role in K-12 education, AASA has a reputation on Capitol Hill as a feisty, respected advocate for its members and the school children they serve.

“AASA has had an inordinate amount of influence in Washington,” says Paul Houston, the association’s executive director from 1994 to 2008. “When we were trying to lobby Congress, if we could get 200 superintendents to hit the Hill, that was powerful. I was always telling our members, ‘Superintendents are community leaders with great influence back home, and you have a bully pulpit in your community. Politicians have to pay attention to that.”

Jack Jennings, who spent almost 30 years on Capitol Hill as subcommittee staff director and then general counsel for the House Committee on Education and Labor, says AASA has a reputation as an organization that “always will fight for more flexibility at the local level” while supporting national causes.

“They try to keep things simple while supporting the federal role in education,” Jennings says. “They believe federal programs should be funded properly and fit in and complement the way education is being offered at the local level.”

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AASA President Karl Hertz (left) with Sen. Ted Kennedy, recipient of AASA's "I Care" Award in 1998. 
Landmark Impact

For much of its first 100 years, AASA passed resolutions seeking federal aid and support for a variety of initiatives, including literacy programs, rural education and vocational education. Then, as a division of the National Education Association, the organization’s purpose was to “influence Congress” on major issues.

“We believe that no system of reconstruction will be complete that does not adequately provide for a general system of education,” states a resolution passed after an 1870 meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant and members of Congress. “We would urge upon the consideration of your honorable bodies the necessity of such appro-priations, from time to time, as may be neces-sary to keep in active operation the present system of schools.”

In 1969, AASA began separating from NEA, first becoming an associated organization and then severing all ties four years later. During this period, the Office of Governmental Relations was established under the direction of Jim Kirkpatrick, and AASA started taking a more public and visible stance on federal issues. An annual Washington Workshop was established in 1973 to provide the association’s members with insights on federal issues and, three years later, AASA leaders took the program on the road.

Jennings has written a book, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools: The Politics of Education Reform, that will be released this spring to mark the 50th anniversary of the ESEA. In it, he writes that AASA and the National School Boards Association were instrumental in crafting the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which Congress passed in 1975.

“They were very concerned that it was too bureaucratic and too much paperwork, and they couldn’t convince the advocates for the disabled to simplify the process as much as they wanted,” Jennings says. “That’s why you get so many complaints at the local level about IDEA because it became more complicated than AASA, the school boards and other organizations thought it should be. Add in the lack of money and you get double trouble.”

Joe Scherer, who replaced Kirkpatrick as head of government relations, worked diligently to make AASA and its members more visible in Washington, says Bruce Hunter, who succeeded Scherer and retired in 2013 after 31 years in federal policy work with AASA.

“As the federal role changed, Title I became bigger and IDEA came online, the federal role in the day-to-day school business grew tremendously,” Hunter says. “Joe saw this change coming, and he was an important transitional figure because he moved us toward taking more public, bolder stands and doing it through the members. He helped get more superintendents tuned into the idea of federal policy.”

In the late 1970s, AASA started co-sponsoring the “I Care Conference” — later called “We Care” — with the Association of Educational Service Agencies, to focus federal attention on the needs of local educators. At the height of the energy crisis, AASA’s lobbying team helped shape federal legislation that provided schools with millions of dollars in matching funds to renovate school buildings.

But the highlight from this era was the association’s role in the creation of the U.S. Department of Education, which became a separate agency with Cabinet-level representation in 1979. AASA and other education groups advocated for this move for more than a century, and the staff was so highly respected that it was asked to serve as a member of the official transition team.

Pushing Local Authority

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Gov. Bill Clinton at the I Care conference in 1984. 

Hunter started work as an AASA lobbyist in January 1982. Sixteen months later, the groundbreaking report “A Nation at Risk” changed his job dramatically.

“‘A Nation at Risk’ gave the outside groups, the think tanks in Washington, a much louder voice,” Hunter says. “It was their first big foray into public policy and public opinion, and it put the education establishment — school boards, principals, AASA — back on our heels.”

Through the 1980s and ’90s, AASA worked with the House and Senate to move authority over Title I and IDEA spending more to the local level. The LEAD program, which provided funding for training new and emerging administrators, was another victory, as was the Rural Education Achievement Program, which provides grants to districts with fewer than 600 students with limited strings attached.

“We wanted to return control of Title I in particular to the local level, and we really did that by enlarging what is known as the schoolwide concept, which was an important shift,” Hunter says. “It wasn’t just one victory. It was over the course of three or four reauthorizations, but we got it done. We also slowly made the special education law more in tune with practice, making it easier for schools to work with parents while protecting kids.”

Gene Carter, a former superintendent who was executive director of ASCD for more than two decades, says AASA has “played an ever-increasing, powerful change agent role through its advocacy and influence. That’s worthy of noting, and it is taking place at the local, state, regional and national levels where lots of work needs to take place.”

“Our biggest victory was making AASA a player,” Hunter says. “It was hard to get anything done without having us on board. The people on Capitol Hill who were moving legislation knew that it meant something when we opposed or when we supported a piece of legislation.”

Jennings, who worked on Capitol Hill from 1967 to 1994, says AASA’s lobbying team has been highly respected on both sides of the political fence.

“They have always been effective in influencing Democrats and Republicans and are known as an organization that would talk to both parties,” says Jennings, who founded the Center on Education Policy. “Some education organizations tend to be more partisan and not as widespread, so that’s a valuable commodity.”

Standing Alone on NCLB

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Legislative Advocacy Conference attendees in 2013 before dispersing to meet with congressional representatives and their staffs on Capitol Hill. 

The biggest, longest, hardest fought legislative battle that AASA has waged in its history was over the No Child Left Behind Act, as the 2002 ESEA reauthorization is known. The association was first among education groups to say the law, with its punitive focus on testing and accountability, would harm rather than help students and schools.

“I think the organization was standing up and accurately representing where the members were at,” says Daniel Domenech, who was then superintendent of Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools and now is AASA’s executive director. “That’s how the superintendents felt about it.”

From July 2003 to May 2004, thousands of AASA members contacted members of Congress using technology provided by the association. The focus was on two initiatives: full funding of IDEA and doing whatever it takes to fix NCLB.

“We listened to our members, and we drew our line in the sand,” Hunter says. “We said the way it was drawn up wouldn’t work, and it hasn’t and it doesn’t. We took terrible abuse for that because we were first and said it most forcefully. We were very specific about why we were doing it and why it would hurt our members. No one in Washington was happy with us, but we stuck to our guns.”

For Houston, taking such a strong stance on NCLB “was a pretty tough decision because the Bush administration was pretty vindictive in their response.”

“They did a number of things, including trying to get me fired,” Houston says. “But we took a tough stance and stayed there because it was the right thing, in my opinion, to do. And as a result, we got to be known as an organization that would do the right thing regardless of cost.”

By 2010, all major education groups had joined AASA in opposing the law, which still has not been reauthorized. The reverberations continue in federal policy today.

“They were right early on about NCLB,” Jennings says. “But they weren’t listened to, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.”

What Members Want

Today, with a polarized and partisan Congress unable to complete significant education legislation, Domenech says the president and the U.S. Department of Education have unprecedented powers. That, he and others believe, is dangerous.

“Washington is hostile to the nation, and the nation has become hostile to Washington,” Hunter says. “Since the turn of the century, every year we would take our federal positions to Congress and found that the relationship was becoming more and more divorced. It moves a degree or two further every year.”

While Domenech supports the Common Core — “It’s a step in the direction in which we know the standard for each child, not as a group but as an individual” — he notes AASA has been outspoken and critical of initiatives such as Race to the Top and “robbing Peter to pay Paul to pay for all of these competitive grants.”

He adds, “We’ve taken a very hard line there, and it’s what our members want. They don’t want us to make them believe that everything is great when it isn’t. If it was, then our advocacy would be a sham.”

As part of its advocacy initiatives, AASA is publishing a series of toolkits designed to inform members and help them tell the real story of what’s happening in public education. The first, “Derailing the Push to Privatize,” was published last July and focuses on how to combat voucher legislation at the grassroots level. The Office of Governmental Relations, now under the direction of Noelle Ellerson, is working on others and trying to cut through the gridlock.

Domenech says AASA will continue to push for what its members want at the federal level. Ultimately, he says, the organization’s mission “is really about advocacy.”

“We are advocates on behalf of the children we serve, advocates and thought leaders,” he says. “That’s where we need to play a leadership role as an association and where we need to lead the discussion. It is crucial.”

Glenn Cook is a freelance education writer in Lorton, Va. E-mail: glenncook117@gmail.com. Twitter: @ourrealityshow

 

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