We’re Here for the Kids: Superintendents in Their Role as Advocates

Type: Article
Topics: Advocacy & Policy, School Administrator Magazine

December 01, 2023

What’s it take to effectively promote your schools’ needs in front of a federal lawmaker? An AASA insider shares proven tactics
Black man in gray suit and blue button down talking to white woman with brown hair in light gray suit, both sitting at table with laptop
Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director at AASA, right, with Jean-Claude Brizard, CEO and president of Digital Promise, and a former superintendent. PHOTO COURTESY OF LIFETOUCH PHOTOGRAPHY

To be an educator is to be an advocate.

As I travel around the country to meet with superintendents and other school district leaders, I often open the conversation with “Please raise your hand if you think of yourself as an advocate.” While many hands go up, not all do. That’s due less because school leaders don’t think of themselves as child advocates but because of a stigma, real or perceived, that being an advocate or lobbyist has a negative connotation.

The reality of being an educator — and even more so for school system leaders — is that being an educator is being an advocate. That decision to modify school start times? That’s a major change someone had to support and promote. A switch to more explicit phonics instruction? That’s another move that someone had to push to completion. A decision to lower student-teacher ratios in classrooms to increase student engagement? A superintendent’s job is full of such decisions to better support school-age children. Pushing forward the work of the school district and promoting one approach over another, selecting one solution over another — all of that amounts to advocacy.

Superintendents are advocates already, so at this point in the conversation, I simply explain I am here to talk about a specific type of advocacy. While superintendents’ day-to-day advocacy is for and about their students, the conversations over revised policies and practices to be made take place with their board members, administrative team, teachers, students and the broader school community.

Natural Progression

The advocacy I typically address in my travels involves conversations with elected officials on the federal level.

There are myriad ways superintendents support public education and the schools and students they serve through their public actions including making a budget, deciding on a curriculum and operating with a governing board. Federal advocacy is not a first step, but it is a natural next step. Decisions made outside of the school setting have a profound impact on schools and the work of educators, and it is public advocacy that helps inform and improve those policies made from afar.

I like to point out to superintendents that while I refer to district leaders as doing the advocacy and lobbying, often you are the ones being lobbied. If you can reflect on what works when you are on the receiving end of feedback from teachers, counselors and parents, sharing those insights can be one of the most powerful and effective ways to build your own advocacy skill set.

How do you respond to someone you only hear from when it’s a complaint? How likely are you to say yes to an ask if you have no relationship or context with the person or their request? When you are working with your school board on a policy change, do you drop all the information on them the night of the vote or do you draw upon existing relationships and ongoing dialogue? One of the easiest, and most comfortable, ways to develop your federal advocacy is to adopt the effective approaches you have experienced as the receiver of requests.

AASA’s Approach

AASA’s members are at the heart of our federal advocacy priorities, which are revised by the AASA Executive Committee and Governing Board at the start of every year. That document is our guiding light on Capitol Hill, and it drives the policies that those of us on the policy team — director of advocacy Sasha Pudelski, public policy analyst Tara Thomas and I — engage in and how we respond to various proposals. How we talk about advocacy with our members boils down to five words: relationships, endurance, logistics, knowledge and communications.

Relationships. Advocacy is about relationships, and relationships take time. Aim to be the steady beacon of light in an increasingly tumultuous, political and partisan discourse about public education and federal policy — someone who weighs in with a letter or a call to say “thanks” to a congressional representative or senator for a favorable vote as readily as you call to express concern over a recent proposal.

Much like superintendents, members of Congress receive a disproportionate amount of feedback about what isn’t working, and one of the easiest ways to break through that noise is with steady, consistent information that provides a holistic view of what’s going on in schools and how congressional work is both supporting and/or complicating that work.

Endurance. Federal education policymaking is a marathon, not a sprint. A great example is the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which became the Every Student Succeeds Act. Discussions started in August 2007 and lasted until December 2015. That’s more than eight years of grinding through all levels of federal education policy conversation.

It’s critical to be a resource, whether an ally or an adversary, at all stages. If you’re not at the table, you’re likely to be the patient on the examination table. Advocacy is one of the most effective and powerful ways to ensure the patient’s needs are addressed well. This is where it becomes important to reach out occasionally, even when it seems nothing is moving or when you don’t need something. Weighing in with an opinion matters.

When it comes to endurance in advocacy, showing up can mean more engagement. Your steady engagement is the difference between a boilerplate response and the legislator’s office reaching out to you when a question arises.

Logistics. In Washington, D.C., we quip that you should “never underestimate the power of a young person in a suit” on Capitol Hill. Back in 2015, during the signing of ESSA, many of my fellow advocates and the main education staffers on Capitol Hill were in their late 20s and early 30s. These are the people who wrote the federal law that drives so much of what happens today.

You might have a standing meeting in a hallway with a junior staffer, or you might meet with the member of Congress in her or his office. Treat all as the same opportunity because they are just that — one more chance to deposit into that advocacy relationship account.

Knowledge. This is as much about ensuring you know what you’re talking about in terms of content, as it is knowing your value as a constituent. Superintendent conversations are an exceptionally effective use of time for elected officials. You can talk all day long about your school district, its ups and downs, trends with teachers, needs of students and attendance challenges. You have your thumb on the pulse of the community in a way few do. You are positioned to talk about broader community trends: a significant change in population, a recent health epidemic, an uptick in teen pregnancies, a local employer leaving town.

Especially salient in the current environment, you are on the front line of some of the biggest lightning-rod issues: book bans in school libraries, teaching of America’s racial past and LGBTQ issues. These are flaring up in communities nationwide and may be playing out in your schools. You are uniquely positioned to talk about all of this and to do so through the lens of what it means to your schools and how federal policy can support or complicate these realities.

Communication. Know what you’re asking and know the purpose of the meeting or communication.

Communication is about being confident that you not only said what you needed to say, but your audience understood it as intended. Follow-up can be helpful, and it becomes a natural next step toward building a relationship. Answer any questions that were left open-ended, share any items mentioned in the meeting and invite elected officials to visit your district.

Report out to your administrative team and community on your contact. Advocacy is as natural and essential as educating when you are running a school system, and anything you can do to norm your advocacy effort as an inherent element of your leadership helps eradicate any negative connotation around advocacy.

How do we know this approach works? In the span of less than three months, the AASA advocacy team saw at least four instances of member engagement and advocacy translate into federal policy proposals:

When both the House and Senate introduced their respective IDEA full-funding legislation, AASA’s top federal priority and an important part of our ongoing relationship work protected IDEA funding.

The House introduced the All Children Are Equal Act, a bill that addresses a technical flaw in the Title I formula to more accurately and equitably allocate federal funds.

After more than a year of ongoing conversations with AASA advocacy staff emphasizing the need to both respond to cyber threats and protect E-Rate funds, Federal Communications Chair Jessica Rosenworcel used the AASA advocacy conference to announce her long-awaited proposal to support schools in responding to cyberattacks would not repurpose E-Rate dollars from their connectivity focus.

The House introduced in September the Head Start Expansion and Improvement Act, legislation that would increase the poverty threshold and expand eligibility for the Head Start program, a revision stemming directly from member meetings last January.

Driven by Asking

I’ve been asked how I ended up in a job like this, and I respond, with absolute sincerity, that it’s my mother’s fault. Growing up, one of the ways my parents taught us communication and confidence was the simple lesson “They can’t tell you no until you ask.” So I turned into a professional asker, and my requests and questions are all driven by what superintendents tell us will make the best federal policy in support of their schools.

Let’s agree to move forward together to ask Congress to do more to support and strengthen public education. The worst they can do is say no. But the overwhelming majority of the time, they are trying to find a way to yes. And your advocacy is critical to getting them there because, as the headline over this article suggests, “We’re here for the kids.” n

Noelle Ellerson Ng is associate executive director of advocacy and governance at AASA. Twitter: @Noellerson

Retirees Bring Added Reach to Our State Association’s Lobbying
By N. Scott Kimble

White man with dark brown hair in dark blue suit, light blue button down and red tieRegardless of how strong a professional association thinks its advocacy work might be, having additional lobbyists available to engage with elected officials is a necessary advantage.

The Missouri Association of School Administrators has on staff two full-time advocacy professionals. Additionally, MASA is part of a consortium of 10 other education-related associations that contracts with a lobbying firm. While that may seem like adequate representation at the statehouse, additional support comes to us in the form of “lobby assistants,” a group of eight retired superintendents who provide on-the-ground representation from each of our state association’s eight geographic regions.

MASA’s Lobby Assistant Program started more than 25 years ago. At the time, then-Executive Director Gary Sharpe recognized our advocacy work required assistance. The association sought out retired superintendents who not only had a good understanding of legislative work but who also were well-known and respected in their own regions of the state.

The program has been invaluable, according to MASA Executive Director Doug Hayter, who said the lobby assistants bring “a deep understanding of what is best for public education [and] an enthusiasm to share vital information with those who make laws.”

Kay McMurtrey, who has served as a lobby assistant for the past 12 years and earlier was superintendent in Phelps County, Mo., says she sees the work as strategic.

“The legislative session runs a little more than four months here in Missouri,” she says. “Because we only come to the Capitol twice a month as part of our duties, it is vitally important to know our key messages and make them resonate. I know I am doing important work.”

Besides meeting with legislators, the lobby assistants tally votes and provide regular reports on the status of key legislation to MASA members in their regional meetings.

Model Guidance

State superintendent associations considering adoption of a similar program ought to keep the following in mind:

Select the right people. The ideal lobby assistant must be comfortable engaging actively with state legislators in conversation about legislative topics central to public education. A lobby assistant also must have a degree of fearlessness as she or he will interact with some of the most powerful leaders in the state. It’s important to be assertive and confident.

Craig Barker, a former superintendent from northwest Missouri, says of his experience as a lobby assistant, “You must have a passion for public education. Like the other assistants, my entire adult life has been about helping students. This is a natural fit for me — it allows me to continue working on behalf of kids.”

Provide lobby assistants with an internal infrastructure. Association staff must remember the lobby assistants are retirees. They do not spend their days reading the more than 2,300 bills filed every year in the Missouri legislature.

That job falls to MASA’s full-time lobbyists. As such, before the lobby assistants speak with legislators from their geographic regions, they are briefed in person by MASA’s full-time lobbyists on the issues MASA would like them to discuss that particular week. Briefings usually run less than an hour. Talking points are shared, and every attempt is made to ensure the lobby assistants are conversant about the issue.

At the end of the day, the lobby assistants meet with MASA staff to share their interactions from the day.

Stipends and reimbursement for travel and food expenses are also items to be considered.

Gauging Results

How does MASA know its Lobby Assistant Program works?

Our staff hear from legislators who say the information the lobby assistants share helps them as they review proposed legislation. Hearing from former school leaders who care deeply about public education and who have a sense for what communities in their region value has a real impact on elected officials — sometimes more so than from professional advocates.

Scott Kimble is director of legislative advocacy with the Missouri Association of School Administrators in Jefferson City, Mo.

Engage With @AASAdvocacy

Superintendent effectiveness in federal advocacy is only as good as your ability to be succinct in communication of information, intentional in what you’re asking and strategic in how you make available the supporting evidence.

Here are several ways you can engage with those at AASA who oversee the association’s legislative advocacy. You can use these steps to dip your toe or fully submerge.

Download the app for a comprehensive resource for AASA advocacy. The AASA Advocacy app keeps you informed about the most impactful changes coming from Congress and provides a curated selection of relevant news for school administrators. It empowers school leaders to shape educational policy. The app is available in the Apple App Store and on Google Play.

Bookmark the advocacy page. You find that aasa.org/advocacy has it all, from toolkits and talking points to information on upcoming conferences and calls to action.

kRead the Leading Edge. This is AASA’s policy blog. 

Follow the department on Twitter. Our feed is @AASAdvocacy, and the members of the team are @Noellerson, @SPudelski, @TaraEThomas1 and @K_Sturdevant.

 Join the Legislative Corps. Sign up to receive our weekly advocacy update, published every week when Congress is in session. Contact Tara Thomas at tthomas@aasa.org.

Listen to PEP Talk podcasts. On AASA’s recently revamped podcast, you can listen to Public Education Policy Talk.

Attend the policy and advocacy strand at AASA’s National Conference on Education. Join us in San Diego in February for six topical sessions and our federal relations luncheon for the latest developments at the federal level.

Visit your congressional representative. A great opportunity to do that takes place each July at AASA’s Legislative Advocacy Conference in Washington. Visit aasa.org/legconf.aspx. Make your voice heard.

—  Noelle Ellerson Ng