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Professional Opinion

Time to Make Our Voices Even Louder

Strong public schools for all our students are the best investment our nation can make.
President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan before the president delivers his back-to-school speech in Washington, D.C.
President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan before the president delivers his back-to-school speech in Washington, D.C.

The start of a new year is A time of resolutions and renewal, but for many of us here in Washington, it seems we can’t get rid of old baggage.

We are dealing with a Congress that has deep partisan divisions, divisions within parties, and many different and competing priorities. Many of us are discouraged by the bickering and the slow pace of action. We know well the damage that’s being inflicted on public schools by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and the painstaking process to get a new law passed. Multiple continuing resolutions seem to have become the norm in recent appropriations cycles. And with this being an election year, we can expect campaigns to further disrupt work in Washington.

Nevertheless, we can’t get too discouraged by the politics. We must instead take the initiative to get more involved, for the sake of our schools and the children we serve. Even in what many perceive as a period of inertia in Washington, we are not Washington. We are 13,809 school districts and more than 90,000 school board members ready to lead—to ask the tough questions about how effective we are in helping all students gain the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in a very different world; to allocate (in tough economic times) the diminishing resources to the most strategic places; and to make sure that the value of public education is recognized by the public and by members of Congress.

Personal Contact Is Critical

To do that, it’s more important than ever to tell your stories: Contact your members of Congress to let them know what’s happening in your schools—and what you need them to do. This kind of personal contact is critical; organizations like the National School Boards Association (NSBA) rely on its members’ voices so that members of Congress truly understand what we do.

On February 7, nearly 800 school board members visited their members of Congress and their staffs to articulate our core beliefs: (1) Fully fund Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); (2) reauthorize a more effective Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); and (3) give more flexibility to local district leaders so they can truly improve teaching and learning.

One of NSBA’s top legislative priorities is ensuring strong federal funding for key programs such as Title I and IDEA. The fiscal year 2012 budget that was finally approved just before the December holidays may not have the drastic cuts that some members threatened, but it funds the major programs, including Title I, at the same level as the year before. Keep in mind, though, that, in recent years, we’ve seen more students and their families cross over the line into poverty, and we have more students relying on the free and reduced-price lunch program. No increase in funding, in effect, amounts to a decrease.

ESEA Reauthorization

On January 8, we also marked the 10th anniversary of the signing of NCLB. Many elements of the law are clearly not working as they were intended, yet a reauthorization has eluded Congress for more than five years now. We must continue to press for a comprehensive ESEA reauthorization that will hold schools to high standards but also will give them flexibility to best meet their students’ and local schools’ needs. In the past year, NSBA has met with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a number of occasions to discuss school board members’ concerns about the law and the need for regulatory relief.

While we appreciate his move to eliminate some of the most problematic regulations, such as the 20 percent set-aside for supplemental services or school choice—which had not produced significant results in student achievement—there is still much more work to be done that can only come from a totally new reauthorization.

It’s time to make our voices even louder. We must drive home the message that strong public schools are the best investment our nation can make in our economy and our future. We need a commitment that education funding will match the goals we have set for student achievement so that schools can move forward and prepare our next generation to meet the challenges they will face.

Our schools, teachers and staff are being asked to do more for the sake of our students. We must ask our federal lawmakers to do more to support public school education, for the sake of our country’s future.

Anne L. Bryant is executive director of the National School Boards Association.