The Last Word February 2012

By Anne L. Bryant

We begin this new year with much unfinished business in Washington and a sense of uncertainty about the economy and the future.

Frankly, many of us are discouraged by the slow pace of action in Congress. The delay of the No Child Left Behind Act reauthorization has unfairly damaged many public schools, and partisan divisions continue to stall the appropriations process to the point that continuing resolutions seem to have become the norm in recent years. And with this being an election year, we can expect campaigns to further disrupt work in Washington in the coming months.

Is there any role for school boards? My answer: Absolutely.

In early February, some 800 school board members, chosen by their state school boards associations, and state association representatives will travel to Washington for NSBA’s annual Federal Relations Conference. Here, they will learn about the current legislation and emerging issues for Congress and the Obama administration before spending a day on Capitol Hill meeting with their representatives.

This is one of the most important functions of NSBA: to bring the school board voice to our federal lawmakers and policymakers.

Even in what many perceive as a period of inertia in Washington, we must stay our course and continue working to make sure the school board perspective is recognized. Each day, NSBA’s advocacy team is working behind the scenes with key legislators and staff members on issues such as increasing Title I funding and staving off major cuts in the federal K-12 budget, ensuring that regulations for the new child nutrition law do not add significant costs for school districts, and promoting a bill to give greater flexibility in spending federal funds.

Simply put, we must not give up on the political process. Our voices matter.

I’ll give you an example of the impact we’ve had recently. NSBA representatives, armed with more than 300 survey responses and firsthand examples from school board members across the country, met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his top staff members to discuss his plans to grant waivers to No Child Left Behind Act mandates. Your voice was heard. Duncan was particularly impressed with the clarity and details in the feedback we presented, and the state NCLB waiver relief regulations issued, while not perfect, largely reflected the 17 areas identified in NSBA’s official comments.

This shows the value and credibility of our national organization. This type of personal contact is critical, and no one state or group of school districts can do this work alone.

But our voices not only matter in Washington -- we must also remember the impact we have in state legislatures, local governments, and our communities. Last year, we saw some state legislatures pass or consider new laws that will damage public education in the form of vouchers, virtual schools, and charter expansions with weak accountability mechanisms. The role that your state school board association played -- working again with you through local school board leadership -- is vital to our democracy.

This is why we must continue to share our success stories and promote our work through NSBA and the state associations. Through our grassroots network we must show that it’s the superintendents, administrators, teachers, and school board members who are driving student learning, who are taking on the tough challenges and leading our schools through these tough times. I can assure you that, when you lend your voice to NSBA or your state association, it will make an impact.

We can’t get too discouraged by the politics. We must instead take the initiative to get involved, for the sake of our schools and for the children we serve.

As an incentive, remember the reason you ran for the board was the children -- they give us the hope and promise to take on these challenges and create new opportunities.

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