Legislative Agenda for Rhode Island
The political process plays a huge role in education - not the least of which being funding at the federal, state and local levels.
The federal government, which lacks a constitutional role in education, has interjected itself into the education arena via its constitutional role in civil rights. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was introduced in an effort, along with other Great Society initiatives, to support the education of children living in poverty. The ESEA provided funding in a number of "Titles" to support specific education programming. In 1970, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed to assure all children, regardless of disabilities, would receive a "free and appropriate" education. This act greatly improved the circumstances and living conditions of children with disabilities some whom were not being educated at all. However, at the same time, it greatly increased the costs of public education which Congress understood when IDEA was passed. Congress assumed 25% of the additional costs with assurances that this mandate would be fully funded over time. This has not happened which, due to constrained local budgets, has impacted the resources available for regular education programs. The federal government further interjected itself by, under its Race to the Top program, providing funding on a competitive basis for states willing to accept conditions imposed by the grant process.
The federal government furthered its involvement in education, again without the support of a constitutional mandate education having been retained as a state right when the U.S. Constitution was being written, the ESEA was rewritten in 2002 under the title, No Child Left Behind. This was the most significant federal inroad into public education. The U.S. Department of Education developed learning goals to be attained by all students by the year 2014. The goal was to eliminate the so-called learning gaps which existed between categories of students. Student assessments, standardized tests, were to be created the outcomes of which would determine which schools achieved the goals. To assure states could not reach the goals by having high achieving students offset the lower scores of other students, districts were required to specifically identify students by category - low socio-economic status (SES), minority, special needs - and each category's student outcomes were to achieve the specified goals. USDOE then created a, some considered draconian, list of "transformations" to be imposed on any school not bringing all students to the specified achievement levels including firing teachers and principals and closing "failing" schools. Parents were to be informed if their children were attending a "failing" school and given an opportunity for them to move their children to "alternate" schools - the basis for the expansion of charter schools. Under a threat of withholding federal funding, primarily ESEA Title 1 funds, the USDOS essentially forced compliance on states and school districts. (The facts that no country, including Finland, had ever totally eliminated learning gaps between low SES students and their better off peers, notwithstanding providing far greater supports for low SES children than does the US, and that the vast majority of schools not achieving to the learning standards set by USDOE were in areas of high poverty did not deter the federal government from seeking to impose its mandates to transform these schools.) States were also required to establish educator evaluation systems with consequences for teachers not achieving to specified levels.
The NAESP and NASSP, representing principals nationwide, have lobbied continuously to impact the role the federal government has assumed for itself in public education. This is an important area for RIASP members to remain knowledgeable about and involved in by contacting Rhode Island's national delegation. The organizations have also supported full funding for IDEA, a reduction in special education paperwork, more federal funding for principal professional development, and a strong opposition to any of the proposed voucher plans.
The most significant role the Rhode Island legislature plays in public education is funding - particularly the creation of and appropriations to the public education funding formula. There are myriad other issues impacting schools (school construction and repair, safety issues, and others) that arise during each session of the legislature. RIDE has, through its legislative liaison, provided RIASP with lists of all bills introduced and the actions taken on each throughout the legislative session. This provides RIASP members an opportunity to provide input with their representatives in an attempt to influence the legislation.
t is incumbent upon principals to become politically involved. Principals, by virtue of their positions, are generally far more informed on education issues that any other constituent group. It is vitally important this knowledge play a part in the development of and action on legislation. Often, it is groups with far less knowledge who are successful at influencing education legislation because the constituent group is more aggressive in lobbying its own interests.
And, the local level political scene should not be ignored since the largest source of education funding is local. Maintaining a good relationship with local school committees, city and town councils, and other elected officials is of vital importance. Decisions are made on perceptions. You have the ability to create positive perceptions about your school, your staff, and your students. You also have the opportunity to react to negative perceptions which are not based on fact.
The Rhode Island Association of School Principals has worked on behalf of the national political agenda as outlined above. The RIASP Board has a member whose responsibilities include State and Federal Relations. Annually, a leadership team from RIASP goes to Capitol Hill in Washington to meet with the Rhode Island delegation. Those face-to-face meetings have enabled RIASP to establish a working relationship with each of Rhode Island's congressmen and senators. RIASP is pleased to report that the state's congressional delegation has been receptive to the RIASP agenda and has been very supportive of principals in general.
Being politically effective relies, to a large part, on personal connections. Your email, letter, or phone call to a local official or state legislator has a greater chance of having an impact if you are known to that official or legislator. October is generally Principals' Month, use it to invite elected officials in to shadow you or a member of your staff. If you have guest readers in your classrooms, invite elected officials. The same goes for science fairs. The more contact with you and your school the more influence you are likely to accrue and the more positive perceptions of schools you will produce.
Principals are encouraged to give feedback to RIASP about the issues that are important to them. You may contact the Executive Director at RIASP.