Domenech: A Historic Moment, Equity, Politics and Leveling the Playing Field

 The following is a transcript of Daniel A. Domenech’s opening remarks that opened the first day of the AASA-Howard University Urban Superintendents Academy Inaugural Conference in Alexandria,Va. Domenech is the executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Dan-aug.jpg What a pleasure to be with all of you.  We’re looking forward to the weeks ahead as this program continues and we have the great opportunity and honor to work with our first cohort with this AASA-Howard program.

AASA is the oldest education organization in America. We are celebrating our 150th anniversary this year. We were founded in 1865 by seven superintendents who met in Harrisburg, Pa. Those seven superintendents came together because they realized then that there was a need for superintendents to have an advocacy voice at the national level.

You might be surprised to learn that the main driver, the main intent for that voice, was the issue of equity. Even back then, 150 years ago, there were huge disparities in our educational system in the way our children were being educated. So these superintendents came together and formed, what at that time, was first called the National Association of School Superintendents.

You also might be interested in knowing that one of those seven gentlemen who led the formation of AASA subsequently formed the NEA. He was the first president of NEA. I don’t know if the NEA has ever acknowledged that the first president of their organization was a superintendent.

We’ve been around for quite some time and equity has been our driver. You’ll hear from Noelle Ellerson later on who heads up our advocacy efforts.

We’re very proud of the work we do hear in Washington on your behalf (and) on behalf of all educators. I’m very pleased to see that Pedro Noguera is joining us. Pedro is just an outstanding spokesperson and certainly on the issue of equity. I just had the pleasure of being with him a couple of weeks ago in Abington, Pa., where he and Alan Blankstein are doing conferences around the country on the issue of equity, and we’re going to be hearing about that.

Equity is a major issue that confronts us in public education in America. Equity is one of the issues why Howard and AASA have come together to develop this program. It is so necessary and so important that we develop leaders and thought leaders in education who represent and speak for the vast number of children in America that are not receiving the kind of quality education that they are entitled to. Not because it’s an issue of equality, but it’s an issue of equity. We are not providing our children with the kinds of services in education that they need. To say that we’re providing all of our kids with the same is not the solution and we know that that’s the case.  

We think that it is very important that we train, work with, mentor, coach (and) support educational leaders in America who can go into those urban settings. There are also rural and suburban settings too as we’re beginning to see throughout America today that require champions for children in the area of equity.

What we want to do, frankly, is provide you, and to those of you who are part of this cohort and future members of this cohort, with the training that will allow you to be the leader who will be able to provide for the needs of children without you getting fired. We know the situation and we know the incidents, and we know the turnover rate of superintendents in America. We also know and we’re blessed to have with us today a group of mentors who are experienced that can work with you and support you in terms of achieving the goal of providing your students with equity without you being the fatality in the process—without you having to lose your job. In essence you need to be there. You need to be there throughout the process to make sure that what you start is sustained and continues to grow and continues to move.

We’re also very happy to be joined in the process with superintendents who are looking for this challenge—who are looking to work in the urban setting, who are looking to work in city settings, who are looking to work with our minority children, who are looking to work with our children in poverty to champion the cause on their behalf and make sure that they get (a quality education).

This is just a historic moment for us, to have this partnership with Howard, to make it a reality. We’re also very excited about the fact that we have a similar partnership going on on the west coast with USC. Maria Ott is here from USC. She’s been part of the steering committee in this process.  

We’re hoping that this is just the beginning—that we’ll have the opportunity to create similar kinds of programs around the country.

We’ve been running for the past three years a National Superintendents Certification program, which is proving to be very popular and very successful. We’ve already been approached by one state, Minnesota, who has asked us to develop an aspiring superintendent program there and there are a lot of other states lining up, asking us to do the same thing. There is no question that there is a huge need around the country for leadership training and leadership development.

It’s all not necessarily because of superintendents losing their jobs. The fact of the matter, and we see this in the teaching profession as well, is there is a turnover being caused by retirement. Many of us started in this process years ago where we’ve retired and moved on to other things and we need to make sure that the folks who are stepping into these positions who have the skills, ability, background, knowledge, information and support to do the job that needs to be done.

I can tell you that in all of my years as a superintendent—and I was a superintendent for 27 years both in New York and here in Virginia—that I can’t recall a single superintendent who was ever fired because of an instructional or educational issue. It’s always been a matter of politics. It’s always been an issue that is not related to your curriculum, pedagogy or instructional techniques.

To be a superintendent and not be politically savvy is a crisis waiting to happen. We want to make sure that our participants learn about the politics of the job, work with their mentors and coaches and other cohort members, to learn how to navigate the political system to make sure that you use it to your advantage. To learn to build the kind of support—don’t be a lone ranger and get out on your own and climb out on the limb because they’re going to cut it right from under you. You need to develop the partnerships, the support within your community as you are thinking to implement the kinds of things that will bring equity to your students.

I was very fortunate to have been a superintendent in schools in Fairfax County for seven years during a period of time when Fairfax County was the wealthiest county in the country. Yet, I can tell you in Fairfax County with a population of 180,000 students, I had 60,000 students living in poverty and those students were not getting the same services that other students were getting in Great Falls and McLean and the wealthy parts of the county.

To be able to drive resources to those children who needed it required me to do the kinds of things and build the kind of support that would allow me to take resources and provide those schools with more dollars and cents than other schools in the district were getting. That’s not an easy thing to do as all of you who have done it, know that. But it can be done and it can be done successfully if you develop in your community the support, political capital and political support to do that—to get the business community behind you, to get the parent community behind you, to get the senior citizen community behind you as you explain to them the importance of the value of their homes and how it relates to the quality of education in the system.

There are many, many ways to navigate the hazards that await you as you try to do and provide for the needs of the children in your community. But it has to be done. It’s been too long that we have all realized and understood the problems of public education in America. It’s been too long that our policy makers have not been willing to allocate the resources in America.

Look at the way we fund public education in America. The federal government provides barely 10 percent of the total cost. The states and localities are pretty much split, each about 45 percent. What’s the major driver of funding education? Real estate taxes. When we say you can easily predict the achievement level of a school district by its zip code, it’s because it relates to the wealth of that community, simply. So where we have urban areas and rural areas that don’t have the capital, we see that the quality of instruction in those areas is not where it needs to be.

How do we reallocate the resources? How do we do it in such as way that the communities that need it receive the greater amount of funding at least to level the playing field? That’s a hard task to do, in any state, in any area. Despite that, there are so many other things you can do at the local level.

Thank you all very much for joining us (today) and being part of this incredible historic event.       


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