NSBA Head of Advocacy Reflects on Long Career

By Del Stover

When Michael Resnick joined NSBA as a legislative specialist in 1969, Richard Nixon was president. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The U.S. Army began pulling troops out of Vietnam, and Jimi Hendrix sang at Woodstock.

And most Americans believed the nation’s public education system was the best in the world.

Over the next 44 years, much would change -- and not just for the nation at large. In the realm of education, Resnick, who just retired at 69 as head of NSBA’s Office of Federal Advocacy and Public Policy, has witnessed profound changes in state and federal education policy and in the challenges facing school boards nationwide

Some of those changes were promising, such as the higher priority the nation placed on the academic success of all students, particularly the most disadvantaged and traditionally underserved. Slowly but persistently, the public schools raised student academic performance, narrowed the achievement gap between white and minority students, and raised high school graduation rates to a historic high.

Other changes, however, have been less welcome. Critics of public education have eroded confidence in our public education system. State and federal mandates have been increasingly intrusive and even damaging. Top-down reform efforts have undermined local school governance.

All of this has had an enormous impact on the roles and expectations of the nation’s more than 14,000 school boards, Resnick says.

“If you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, school boards generally served a trustee role, overseeing the budget, making sure finances were in good order, overseeing personnel and student matters -- but leaving to the school district administration with limited authority over much of what went on in the educational program.”

That limited role for the school board gave way over the years as the nation embarked on a decades-long debate about student academic performance. No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) put academic accountability at the forefront of state and federal policy.

“While board members aren’t designing or running their schools’ academic program,” he says, “they certainly have to be familiar with it at a pretty technical level -- so they can respond to issues surrounding student achievement and the need to meet accountability requirements for the school district.”

Good intentions, seismic shifts

NCLB had good intentions, Resnick says, but it brought about a seismic shift in the federal government’s role in education policymaking. States and school boards had long been subject to federal rules in order to participate in categorical programs such as Title I.

However, NCLB mandated states to enact more sweeping and prescriptive policies and requirements that had a direct impact on districts overall and on how boards did their work.

That federal overreach has continued under the Race to the Top program, which offers the promise of significant federal aid to states that agree to enact policies favored by federal education officials.

NSBA has been fighting overreach of top-down policy direction, he says, making clear to Congress and U.S. Department of Education officials that the flood of mandates and regulations are increasingly onerous and limit the flexibility of school officials.

But there are other forces at work, making it harder for advocates of local school governance to influence state and federal policymaking, Resnick says. “Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the principal players in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill were the institutional professional education groups -- those representing teachers, administrators, and school boards.”

Today, however, there are a host of new advocacy groups making their voices heard -- ideology-driven think tanks, industry-backed advocacy groups, business leaders, and other special interests.

These new groups make it more difficult for the institutional associations to be heard, Resnick says. One of the more damaging policy directions that some groups have encouraged is to promote alternatives to the traditional public school system, he says.

Supported by business interests that hope to tap into the billions of dollars spent on education, these groups have helped accelerate state and federal policies in support of vouchers and charter schools.

NSBA has “had to find ways to increase our effectiveness in terms of the knowledge we can bring to the table but also raise our level of advocacy,” he says.

Resnick’s earliest strategies to strengthen NSBA’s advocacy was the creation of the Federal Relations Network (FRN) in 1970 -- an initiative to enlist school board members as outspoken constituents of their federal House and Senate members.

Today, NSBA is working to expand the number of board members participating in legislative advocacy, Resnick says. NSBA also has launched the National School Boards Action Center, designed to broaden school board advocacy to impact Congress, the media, and the public. The center includes the Friends of Public Education network to bring together other local leaders and concerned citizens to advocate on behalf of public education and sound federal policies.

“With the increase in competing voices in the policymaking debate, it becomes harder for your voice to be heard,” he says. “It requires marshalling a different set of resources, and the level of information you must provide has to be greater, as does the level of political punch behind you.”

Deadlocked Congress, power vacuum

It doesn’t help the cause of school boards, however, that Congress is politically deadlocked and struggling to fulfill its responsibilities, he says. Federal lawmakers have failed to adopt an annual federal budget for several years and the long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) still is winding its way through the legislative process.

“Years ago, it was a time of more predictable, orderly policymaking on Capitol Hill, without the partisan rancor of today,” he says. “The political parties had different views, but compromise and accommodations could be made. One role of NSBA was to help broker those compromises.”

The political stalemate in Congress has created a vacuum in federal policy-making -- one that the Education Department is too willing to fill with rigid regulations that are eroding local policymakers’ authority, Resnick notes. But, whatever the merits of any particular policy initiative, the department’s efforts lack the level of accountability or public input that would occur if federal policies were under the legislative oversight of Congress.

“What we see is an overreach of authority from the Department of Education -- not only in terms of the federal role but also in the role of the agency itself,” he says.

That’s why NSBA earlier this year proposed the Local School Board Governance and Flexibility Act, designed to protect local school districts from unnecessary and counter-productive federal regulations. Key provisions of this legislative proposal were incorporated into the House of Representatives’ bill to reauthorize ESEA, which passed in July.

Yet there is much more to be done, Resnick says. NSBA will be working more closely than ever with state school boards associations to support their advocacy efforts in state legislatures and courts “because that’s where many of the policy debates have gone -- to the state level.”

As he steps down after four decades advocating on behalf of school boards, Resnick expresses some worry that the next generation of school board members may come to see the current state and federal intrusion into local policymaking as the norm, rather than a recent development that runs counter to the traditional policy of local school control.

“Over time, if we continue in this current framework, without knowing the history and evolution of recent education policymaking, we may find that new school board members assume it has to be this way,” he says. “But there are better approaches -- emphasizing local school governance -- with tools to increase student achievement with less top-down management.”