Federal Dateline

The Times They Are A-Changin’

by Nick Penning

Excitement, trepidation, caution, fear. Our personal and professional lives share an abundance of emotions at this time in history.

We have a new and historic presidency, as well as a faltering economy that is causing school budgets to collapse, be redrafted and then upended again by governors and state education departments.

What will Washington offer?

Ambitious Agendas
While the two-year-long presidential campaign seesawed as to which issue might take precedence, our new chief executive early on pledged a reform of No Child Left Behind, less emphasis on high-stakes tests and adoption of assessments to “track student progress to measure readiness for college.” President-elect Barack Obama also said he would “help states move toward voluntary, universal preschool.”

nick_penning_webNick Penning

In the legislative branch, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also has an agenda, but admitted last month, “We have a lot less money to draw upon because of the downturn in the economy,” which she termed her top priority.

Since the dramatic collapse of the stock market in October, the financial ground upon which all branches of government depend for their foundations seems more akin to quicksand than terra firma.

Economists seem to agree that stabilizing the economy will require massive public outlays, much of which will be directed toward public construction projects to provide work for the unemployed and incomes for the millions of persons who have lost or will lose their jobs, as the downturn continues to spiral.

Because public school districts are suffering from the dramatic loss of real estate values, the cause of the economic collapse, federal investment in local school renovation, repair and construction is a responsible and realistic priority for Washington’s funds.

As with any Washington agenda, we in the school community dare not assume any such investments are likely to happen. Therefore, you must place communication with your own U.S. House and Senate members at the top of your agenda so they can be made aware of your community’s school construction needs. Representatives and senators must be able to point to specific projects in their districts and states, so they can claim a portion of the forthcoming stimulus packages for workers and students in their constituencies. (Please copy your project list to Bruce Hunter at bhunter@aasa.org.)

You will need all the political skills at your disposal to make officials at all levels of government aware of your school district’s short- and long-term capital spending needs so those projects will be seen as opportunities for federal investment. And one way to sharpen those skills is to join the AASA Legislative Corps, our voluntary national network, which is free and comes with a weekly report of all education-related Washington activity. (You can join by sending a request to the author.)

Constituency Impact
Dealing with elected officials is going to be vital to the financial well-being of your school district because we have no way of knowing how long this national financial turmoil is going to last.

Yes, No Child Left Behind eventually will be addressed, as will preschool education, college aid and school nutrition.

But with our new president facing the worst public calamity in more than a generation, bricks and mortar most likely will take precedence, for awhile, over tests, teacher quality and curricula. You can learn more about President-elect Obama’s education goals from his transition education adviser, Linda Darling-Hammond, at the AASA National Conference on Education’s Federal Relations Luncheon on Feb. 20 in San Francisco.

At AASA headquarters, we have solid connections and influence on Capitol Hill, where AASA is highly respected for objectivity and a bipartisan approach to education lawmaking. However, your association’s staff in Washington is only as effective as the members we represent. And that means it is incumbent on you to establish a relationship with the person who represents you in the U.S. House of Representatives and the two individuals from your state who serve you in the U.S. Senate.

To help you get started or to help you firm up those relationships, we offer AASA’s annual Legislative Advocacy Conference. From April 22-24, the conference’s action-oriented and information-packed sessions will offer the background you’ll need to approach your legislators and their staff aides with whom you will meet on our Capitol Hill Day.

Be assured these folks will welcome you as a constituent, and a key one at that, recognizing you as a chief leader in the community. At this landmark moment in our nation’s history, Hill staff will be eager to hear you describe the state of your school district and to have you explain how congressional representatives can best help the schools back home.

So set aside April 22-24 to make your Washington visit. The connections you make in your federal lawmakers’ offices can make Washington assistance more than a possibility and will prepare these leaders to make your case to their colleagues, for the benefit of your district and for the future of the children you serve.

Nick Penning is a senior legislative analyst at AASA. E-mail: npenning@aasa.org