By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services
If you go to House or Senate education committees during the 2014 session of the state legislature, you’re likely to see the faces of several superintendents. The Kentucky Association of School Superintendents gave its members dates, times and suggested sessions to attend this year.
Last month, more than 100 school board members made their way to Frankfort for KSBA’s annual Kids First Advocacy Conference and Lobbying Day. They were in committee meetings, the House and Senate galleries, and, most importantly, in one-to-one chats with their legislators about vital K-12 issues.
The reasons for being there are simple. Board resolutions are good. So are letters, phone messages and emails. Attending update sessions when legislators are home is right up there. But nothing has greater impact than being face-to-face with those lawmakers in the Capitol and Capitol Annex, spelling out how their actions are affecting learning by children and management choices by district leaders.
That’s also why six KSBA members were among the 750 in Washington, D.C. in early February – taking their messages to the members of the Kentucky Congressional delegation. It was one of the smaller delegations attending the National School Boards Association’s Advocacy Institute and Day on the Hill. But size didn’t matter when it came to the passion they shared when they sat down, together or in small groups, with both the state’s U.S. senators and five of its representatives.
I was there mostly on NSBA’s nickel – teaching classes on crafting messages to the lawmakers and doing effective media interviews. But I was able to sit in and listen on some of the Kentucky home talk.
Impacting Kentucky classrooms
The Kentucky team consisted of KSBA President Durward Narramore of Jenkins Independent, President Elect Allen Kennedy of Hancock County, Director-at-large Linda Duncan and her Jefferson County Board of Education colleague Debbie Wesslund, John Lackey of Madison County and Ed Massey of Boone County, who did double duty in his role as NSBA’s immediate past president. They were aided by KSBA Governmental Relations Director Shannon Stiglitz and Interim Executive Director David Baird. But make no mistake about it – the board members did most of the heavy lifting in the meetings.
For example, when Sen. Rand Paul made a case for charter schools, Lackey pointed out that Kentucky already has programs with many of the charter attributes, such as the Model Lab School at Eastern Kentucky University. When Paul referred to the number of state-labeled “failing” Jefferson County schools, Duncan responded with a data sheet showing how the different groups of children in the district are all making progress.
But most of the sessions consisted of the lawmakers and a staff person listening to the board members. Kennedy pitched for more help with early childhood programs. Narramore spoke of underfunding special education programs. Wesslund talked about Title I aid. And Massey advocated for NSBA-crafted legislation to reaffirm local governance authority when it comes to mandates from Congress or any federal agency.
A common theme in the meetings was voiced by Massey: “We’re not asking for more money – we just want more flexibility in deciding how to use what you send us.”
The discussions ranged from Rep. Brett Guthrie’s work to promote interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) among high school students to Rep. John Yarmuth’s pronouncement that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is “dead” in this session of Congress because of the partisan divide over the role of the federal government, the Obama Administration’s waiver process and related issues.
The Last Word
The other sessions shifted back and forth from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s meeting room in the U.S. Capitol to the nearby House offices of Reps. Andy Barr, Thomas Massie, Ed Whitfield (who sent a staff member due to a conflict) and Hal Rogers, who is chairman of the all-important House Appropriations Committee. But even when the focus of the discussions varied, the central theme did not: What you in Congress do here helps – and sometimes hurts – teaching and learning back home.
Obviously, no one knows if a future vote was swayed. Or if an allegiance to an issue was altered. But every member of Kentucky’s Congressional delegation knows that local school board members are paying attention and are willing to give up time and resources for a few face-to-face minutes on behalf of public education.
And that’s a message worth getting out.