Becoming a Better Advocate

 

By Del Stover

As state lawmakers debated a bill with provisions that would unfairly impact local school funding -- and limit accountability for charters -- the North Carolina School Boards Association asked its members to take action. Ultimately, 78 school boards adopted a resolution opposing the bill and calling for the governor to veto it if flawed provisions were put into law.

State lawmakers heard the raised voices of local school board members. In the end, the legislation passed in June -- but without the most damaging provisions and with improved language on charter school accountability.

“It did have an impact, because the boards’ concerns were mentioned over and over again in legislative committees and on the House floor,” says Leanne Winner, director of the association’s government relations team. “The minority party’s staff and governor’s staff were calling me weekly to get a list of districts [adopting the resolution] that was up to date.”

This story underscores an important lesson: The power of local school board members speaking out is nothing to dismiss.

“When school board members meet with their state legislators or members of Congress, it’s [usually] a meeting of elected official to elected official,” says Michael Resnick, associate executive director of NSBA’s Office of Advocacy and Public Policy. “The board member is speaking for the public at large ... They do not have a vested personal interest in the school system as much a vested interest in the education of children. They bring a level of credibility to any policy debate.”

That credibility will be sorely needed in the years ahead. Across the nation, state lawmakers are debating property tax caps, funding cuts, and charter school laws that will add new challenges for local districts. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to expand its role in influencing local education policy through unfunded mandates, regulations tied to federal funds, and the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

That’s reason enough to fuel the activism of Stephen Hyer, board president of Michigan’s Clarkston Community Schools. Hyer works closely with state and NSBA lobbyists and travels to the nation’s capital several times a year to talk to policymakers.

“Instead of sitting home and letting things get done to us, I want lawmakers to know what’s going on at the local level,” he says. “They need to hear our perspective. I know, as a local board member, if I understand the superintendent’s perspective, I make better decisions. That’s true at the national level as well. If federal legislators need to know what we’re thinking, they certainly can make better policy.”

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