In Conversation With …features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This month’s conversation is with Thomas J. Gentzel, who has been executive director of the National School Boards Association since December 2012. He is leading NSBA’s Stand Up 4 Public Schools campaign, which encourages association members, school districts and other public school supporters to be advocates for public schools. The campaign officially was launched at NSBA’s annual conference in New Orleans April 5-7.
Q: Why did the National School Boards Association decide that this campaign was needed?
A: The campaign is a key element of the new NSBA. We are trying to take a look at ourselves in terms of how we can be more effective in advocating for schools and for local school governance. We have always had a presence at the Capitol and we are active in the courts in terms of filing friend of the court briefs. We continue to do those things and will ramp them up. But to be blunt, we felt it was very important to counter critics who tend to unfairly attack public schools and often are not responded to. This public advocacy role was something critically important for the NSBA to address.
Q: Do public schools face greater threats than they have in the past?
A: Absolutely. There are some very concerted, and in some cases, extremely well-funded efforts to privatize education, promote tuition vouchers and create more and more charter schools. Recently the head of Netflix (CEO Reed Hastings) gave a speech and said basically that his goal was to get every student into charter schools so they could shut down public school system.
Q: What fuels these efforts?
A: My view after all these years is that there are people who genuinely believe choice is a good thing and that competition improves education. But we have to also know that there are others who are making similar arguments for very different reasons. They see opportunities to undermine public education because they don’t support it or, frankly, to make money for themselves. There are a lot of business and private interests that see an opportunity to make money by privatizing education.
Q: Why is a response like the campaign so important?
A: Public education is not a perfect institution; it is a human institution, a work in progress. But we know that achievement is up, graduation rates are up. We are doing far more today, often with fewer resources. To have anyone unfairly criticize public schools and to not have the record set straight is a disservice to everybody, including the students in public education. We are absolutely committed that if there are attacks on public education, we will respond vigorously. NSBA will be more assertive in responding.
Q: What role will state associations play in the campaign?
A: What we are trying to do is to have our state associations really partner with us in this campaign, which will help extend its reach dramatically, so that it is coming not just from us but from KSBA and other state members.
As you saw on the website (standup4publicschools.org), there is a lot of material that can be downloaded and used or that can easily be adapted. We are encouraging people to pick up elements of the campaign and use them. We have tried to make it as easy as possible. State associations are really stepping up to the plate and adopting this campaign and its theme and its branding. Social media is a key aspect to getting the messages out.
Q: I understand that the campaign has the support of several high-profile celebrities.
A: Yes, we have had some success with signing on celebrity spokespeople, for example, Sal Khan of Khan Academy, Montel Williams and now, Magic Johnson.
Q: Why ask celebrities to speak out for public schools?
A: We are trying to identify folks who have name recognition and who are respected. We expect to get other celebrity spokespeople from different genres, from different fields. All of the campaign materials, such as advertisements featuring the celebrities, will be available and will be used.
Q: Is there a reason to use celebrity spokespeople instead of state and local leaders?
A: What we want to do is use both. At a national level, we need people who are recognized. What we are encouraging the state associations to do is take the campaign materials and adapt them and use folks in their state, use people in their community who are well known and recognized – the public school graduate, for example, who is willing to speak out in favor of public education. This is not just about national celebrities; the idea is to get powerful people within a state or a community, to get folks who are respected and have a great reputation to say, “I will be in one of your ads.”
Q: Who does the campaign’s message target?
A: Obviously we are trying to reach the public, but there really isn’t a public, as we know. On one level we want people to just start thinking about public schools in a positive light, because we know they think that way about their own schools. The annual Gallup poll tells us year after year that people think the schools in their community are doing a good job. Typically, they give their own schools As and Bs.
Q: Are there others you hope will be influenced?
A: We are hoping this reaches legislators and policy makers and that they start seeing it and are influenced by it.
Those in the business community also have a very active interest in education. We work with them; sometimes they can be pretty severe critics and when the criticism is fair, it is an important conversation to have. Hopefully, we can create an environment and climate where positive engagement can happen.
Q: Who are partners in the campaign?
A: We are not conducting the campaign in conjunction with other organizations, but there are a couple of things we are trying to do. The campaign is a major initiative for us, but we aren’t talking about lots of money to fund it. We have put a couple $100,000 of our funds into the campaign, but we are pretty limited in what we can do. We hope some of our state association members can contribute funds and also some of our corporate partners who support our exhibitors program or buy advertising in our magazine can contribute. We also hope that our campaign will fit in with campaigns that other education groups or consortiums might be conducting that are similar to ours, and that they will come together at the state level.
Q: What should local school boards do to support the campaign?
A: While funding is important, the most important thing that the state associations and local district members can do is actively utilize the campaign materials and get them out in their own channels, such as community newsletters and their websites. You could put a dollar value of doing that, and I think it would be pretty substantial in terms of the number of people it would reach. We are encouraging them to use the campaign and adapt it but to hopefully keep consistent branding from district to district and from state to state so that people will start to recognize the campaign. Materials such as banner ads for websites can be easily downloaded and used. We want them to help themselves to the materials.
Q: Among the campaign materials are special Stand Up 4 Public Schools wristbands?
A: Yes. We are going to see and are already seeing a lot of these wristbands. I am wearing one now, and a lot of them have been distributed.
Q: What are the campaign’s goals?
A: There are two main goals: to promote public education – the good things that happen in public schools – and to talk about why local school governance is important and why school boards are important.
As valuable and important as I think school boards are in our society, most people are busy and don’t really know what the school board’s role is. The public schools are overseen by local school boards, made up of people just like us, who volunteer their time to serve and make decisions for the public schools. School boards represent the community ownership of public schools. This campaign is a way to talk about that, but in context of very positive conversation about the exciting and good things happen in public schools.
All of that bridges into our legislative and legal advocacy. One area of our advocacy is protecting against the overreaching of the federal government in the decisions of public schools. If schools are seen as outposts of federal bureaucracy, it is whole different perspective than seeing them as a local asset.
We are very concerned about the increasing drift of sorts in decision-making about education policy to state and federal levels. The courts increasingly are issuing rulings that restrict or direct what school boards should do.
Q: Why is it important to safeguard local decision-making?
A: It is always a balance. Public schools are part of a state system of education, and in any state, it is important that there be as much flexibility for our local school officials to make decisions as possible. But the public schools have been successful over a long period of time because they have adapted, and have been innovative and creative. When you have excess regulation it stifles all of that it and it harms the system. There are a lot of those issues I hope we can get to as part of this campaign.