The Last Word December 2012

By Thomas J. Gentzel

To know anything about public education in America is to know about Anne L. Bryant. Over the course of 16 years as executive director of NSBA, she became widely recognized as an energetic and relentless advocate for a strong public education system governed by effective school boards. Her efforts helped propel our national association into a position of prominence, and impacted policy in truly significant and far-reaching ways. Anne retired at the end of September, leaving an indelible mark on public education and a remarkable legacy for NSBA.

I have the great honor of following Anne at the helm of NSBA. New leadership is, by definition, a change. Sometimes, these handoffs can be difficult, but in this case, the opposite is true. I have worked with NSBA for more than three decades through the Pennsylvania School Boards Association --  as a lobbyist, senior staff member, and for the past 11 years, as executive director. I have had the opportunity to view our national organization up close, and to build working relationships with NSBA’s leaders, state association members, and employees. All have been exceptionally supportive and welcoming throughout the transition period.

One advantage of knowing the organization so well is that I have a sense of its history, an appreciation for its many attributes, and an understanding of how we can build on the foundation that has been laid. There is much to celebrate in the good work that has been done by NSBA in the past, as well as many opportunities to promote public education in the years ahead.

Fittingly, the future of our association is being examined. NSBA has engaged in a broad-based conversation with its stakeholders. Through numerous meetings and surveys, a clear picture has emerged about the need for NSBA to be a leading advocate for public education and the vital role of school boards, and --  to be an effective, responsive source of assistance for state school boards associations and, through them, the local school officials they serve.

This “New NSBA” most importantly embraces a lean-forward approach that will ensure the voice of school board members is heard in the halls of Congress and in agencies of the federal government. Three words summarize this assertive advocacy: From, With, and Through. Simply stated, key legislative proposals will come from NSBA, meaning that we will write them and have them introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. In addition, we will work with other interest groups to promote a pro-public education agenda. And, whenever necessary, we will mount vigorous opposition to any effort to undermine a quality education for every child. Adversaries may win some of these battles, but they will have to go through us to do so. In other words, NSBA will play both offense and defense --  promoting our own vision of public education while challenging those who would, in effect, put a “For Sale” sign on schools to advance their own pecuniary interests.

Advocacy also takes place in courtrooms, where litigation can restrict the authority of local school officials. NSBA has a track record of weighing-in on court cases around the country that could have a profound effect on schools. We will expand this work in the coming years, too.

The history of our country speaks volumes about the value of an educational system that is responsive to the citizens it serves. School boards make that possible. Yet the relentless push for testing and standardization moves in the opposite direction, elevating compliance over creativity and innovation, and in the process, undermining the vital concept of community ownership of public schools. At a time when decision-making increasingly is being assumed by state and federal levels of government, the need for a strong national voice for local school governance never has been greater.

Thomas J. Gentzel (tgentzel@nsba.org) is the executive director of NSBA.