Having led some of the largest school districts in two different states, it’s expected that the superintendent remains engaged in local, state and federal policy matters. This background proved incredibly valuable as I served as the Executive Vice President of Government Affairs for a multibillion dollar private sector education company. In this role, I spent significant time with lawmakers, and their staffers, and developed a keen understanding of what constitutes effective advocacy and what often results in requests or engagement being marginalized, ignored or resented.
Because not all school districts can easily advocate at the federal level, I will focus my attention on proactive engagement with state political leaders and present recommendations that will help build collaborative relationships with these individuals:
- Engage early, well before the start of legislative sessions and local budget cycles: School leaders need to make forging relationships with state policymakers a high priority. That means proactive outreach well before there are any “asks” to be made. Set up meetings to update these leaders on the progress in your district and main focus areas. Share your strategic plan, successes, and challenges. Be open to their ideas about education reform or change, and don’t respond with quick replies about why they will not work. The goal of these meetings should be to establish a clear line of communication and ongoing dialogue about your district and education in the state.
- Invite state officials to visit schools and special events: Set up some structured school visits getting these leaders into classrooms and positive conversations with educators. Make sure that these events are noted in your district communications. They will welcome the publicity and the visits can serve to reinforce your conversations about the state of your school system. Invite them to concerts, graduations and to flip the coin at important football games. Always be sure these political leaders are recognized at these events. A word of caution; make sure they are introduced with the correct title and spot-on name pronunciation. These things might seem trivial, but getting them wrong can cause bad feelings where you are trying to engender good ones.
- Present your legislative platform or budget priorities early and with data: If the session starts in January and you are just sharing your board’s legislative platform, you are well behind the trajectory of thoughtful consideration. Lawmakers get deluged with requests and must identify key areas of focus and priority well ahead of the established timelines. It is incredibly important to have one or two major asks; if everything in your platform or budget is a priority it will be hard to draw significant attention from policy makers. Always present data; don’t just say your school district was negatively impacted by a budget provision in the last session. Present the data and offer possible solutions. Take the time to present other districts that might benefit from what you are asking so that legislators can see if there are enough votes to get your request passed. Research the history about your legislative request. The root cause of something that may be presenting a challenge for your district may pre-date the legislators currently representing you. District leaders need to do the heavy lifting ahead of these asks to ensure that they address any questions and increase the likelihood that the “ask” will be strongly considered.
- Get to know staffers: Many superintendents get insulted when their call or email is referred to a member of the lawmaker’s staff. Do not be. These folks are the true worker bees who transform ideas into coherent law. Invite them to your meetings with lawmakers; proactively reach out to them. When they ask for data or information make it a priority as if the request came from the elected official themselves.
- Show up during sessions and budget meetings, engaging your representatives: It is worth the trip to the state capitol to make your presence felt during the state legislative session. These visits should be strategic and opportunities to “check in” on what policy makers are focused on during pivotal times of decision making. Too often, districts leave this type of engagement to various organizations they may be affiliated with; while certain groups may have more sway or voice across the legislature, no group has more alignment than you and your district leaders.
- Make sure to thank policy makers if they are successful with your “asks” and show appreciation even if they were not able to pass your requests if their efforts were laudable: Getting legislation passed is never easy. There are competing interests, budget considerations and political divides. If your legislators are successful with one of your high priorities, you and your board should make sure this is noted and shared with the community. It is amazing that so many district leaders fail to do this and wonder why their requests for the next session are not warmly embraced. Legislators need their local communities to know they are fighting for them and sharing successes that benefit your district deepens the relationships you are trying to build. It’s also important to acknowledge the work of lawmakers even if they fall short of getting legislative change if they were truly trying to make this happen. Sometimes, the best of efforts fall short but showing appreciation for the attempt makes it a high priority for your delegation in the next session.
State legislators have tremendous influence over education policy and budgets. To not engage and leave hope to chance for school leaders is irresponsible. We owe it to our employees, communities, and most of all, our students, to take a proactive approach to collaborating with lawmakers in our efforts to improve education.