Never Hesitating to Testify
October 01, 2016
Appears in October 2016: School Administrator.
In an era when a superintendent is expected to be a visionary, what better way to gain a glimpse of the likely future than active advocacy?
As superintendent of a regional vocational school district in New England, I have found the activity, if not the art, of legislative advocacy brings multiple rewards. Education leaders who venture out in the community promoting their school systems increase public awareness of what is happening in their classrooms while gaining timely insight into what the community expects from its schools.
Superintendents who monitor and contribute to proposed state or federal legislation enter the pipeline of change and potential opportunity. By actively pursuing working relationships with state, local and federal policymakers, we ensure that field-based researchers have a grassroots perspective and, in turn, benefit from a greater understanding of the rationale behind legislative proposals that impact our schools.
I have never hesitated when invited to provide testimony to any governmental authority considering a regulation or legislation relative to education. Working in tandem with the AASA legislative team as well as state organizations, I have shared my thoughts on high-stakes testing, vocational education admissions criteria, educational funding formulas, student wellness and a range of other education issues at both state and federal levels.
My experience has shown that policymakers who want their proposals to be successful and to carry positive impact are receptive to the practitioner’s viewpoint and grateful for the opportunity to broaden their perspective. Building and maintaining these open lines of communication strengthens our credibility with constituents and enhances our ability to forecast revenue streams, access external resources and more accurately contribute to the school system’s blueprint for improvement.
Today’s public is asked to direct limited local financial resources to fund education. It rightfully expects its education leaders to be agile and creative in securing outside assets that complement the local investment. Clearly, applications for both formula and competitive grant proposals gain strength when aligned with the legislative discussions and rationales that established the opportunity.
Advocacy need not be limited to the pursuit of educational resources, however. Familiarity with legislative developments provides excellent fodder to identify themes for the superintendent’s performance goals and lends itself to greater efficiency in eventually responding to any subsequent regulation or mandate.
When our school system became aware of potential competitive grants for which our member communities but not our LEA were eligible, we lobbied in support, researched the eventual guidelines of this state-driven legislation and shaped applications on their behalf. The result generated several million dollars awarded to our member communities. This cooperative endeavor enabled the financial planners in those towns to redirect local funds to other needs and led to more favorable reactions to our own budgetary request. Our willingness to venture outside traditional waters strengthened relationships with elected officials and opened new avenues of communication and opportunities for civic engagement.
During one recent encounter, side-by-side testimony before the Massachusetts legislature led to community service partnerships in which our school system and its students assisted a first-term state legislator with his winter coat drive and the design and printing of literature commemorating the 101st anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
At another time, our school’s hosting of a public forum for candidates for elected public office created an advance relationship with the soon-to-be-elected state representative.
Civic-focused activities of this nature are a logical complement to the simulated learning we provide students in activities such as mock trials, Civil War re-enactments, cultural dinners and global technological platforms that allow students to collaborate in real time with peers worldwide.
In today’s challenging and ever-changing fiscal and political environment, we should maximize any chance to reduce the number of surprises. The superintendent who is an active advocate for our schools will be able to spot change as soon as it
appears on the horizon and will be better equipped to respond to both challenges and opportunities.
About the Author
Michael Fitzpatrick is superintendent of the Blackstone Valley Vocational Regional School District in Upton, Mass.