The Last Word December 2011

By Anne L. Bryant

Most board members know that NSBA puts a great deal of energy into legislative and legal advocacy. Our work on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthoriation, on school funding, on regulatory relief, on child nutrition, and on pre-k programs is well known on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and at the U.S. Department of Education. In the Supreme Court, NSBA files more amicus briefs than any other education organization.

But there is more to NSBA’s advocacy than legislation and the courts. NSBA’s work is a solid “three-legged stool” that includes advocacy for school board governance in public education. Our advocacy in Congress and in the courts also needs a voice in the public’s ear.

In the summer and early fall, I attended NSBA’s five regional meetings, visiting with local board members who do double duty as state association leaders. Also in the fall, at the NSBA Council of Urban Boards of Education Annual Conference, I spent time with amazing board members who told me their stories of school reform and of their leadership role in that process.

I left those meetings most impressed by what school boards are doing to advance student learning and achievement. I also left knowing that too many Americans do not understand the critical role you play in the lives of our nation’s schoolchildren.

NSBA takes seriously its role to get in front of audiences not familiar with the good work school boards do -- the work we hear about all the time through your stories of school reform.

One way is through media appearances and conference engagements. This fall, NSBA President Mary Broderick traveled to New York City for NBC’s second Education Nation and spoke on a panel on local governance with three big-city mayors.

Behind the scenes, NSBA staff worked with NBC to craft a different event from 2010, when public school bashing was rampant. The week prior to this year’s Education Nation, I was an education “expert” on an online video series, answering questions about school boards and public education every day.

The tenor of this year’s two-day meeting was decidedly different. It featured examples of great teaching and a contest of school innovation designed by students. NSBA’s involvement gave voice to the value and effectiveness of school boards, which radically changed the program’s tone and impact.

Fast forward to Excellence In Action, a national summit on education reform led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The “reforms” promulgated in the various sessions were not the same as those supported by NSBA or local school boards, but attendees were as passionate about improving public education as I am.

I was a panelist for a discussion on school board governance with Chester (“Checker”) Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Schools (who reported only to the mayor); and New Jersey school board member and author Gene Maeroff. As you can imagine, our viewpoints diverged wildly. The point I hammered home is that school boards want reform, but they do not want to risk flashy ideas with no solid research nor data behind them. Responsible school boards do not gamble with children’s lives. School boards protect our students’ futures, not the status quo.

Shortly afterward, I carried your voice to an audience of dedicated college leaders at the Association of Community College Trustees’ meeting. Our message focused on collaboration and partnerships between community colleges and public schools, especially high schools. Proven programs that work for our students are what reform and change must be about.

Advocacy for school board governance and public education is part of our mission. NSBA is telling your stories, using multiple examples of excellent board governance; of urban, rural, and suburban districts breaking through achievement gaps; of state associations using NSBA’s Key Work of School Boards and Data First training.

School board members are amazing leaders, using data and authentic research to make decisions. NSBA is dedicated to letting the world know how reform-minded you really are. 

Anne L. Bryant (abryant@nsba.org) is NSBA’s executive director and publisher of ASBJ.