NCSA/NDE Team takes advocacy message to The Hill

By Tyler Dahlgren
NCSA Communications Specialist

Nebraska’s public schools were represented on The Hill in mid June, before the Capitals Stanley Cup Parade moved into Washington and painted the city even more red, white and blue than normal.

Five presidents of NCSA affiliate organizations and Executive Director Dr. Mike Dulaney teamed with Commissioner of Education Dr. Matt Blomstedt for an early-week public education advocacy tour in the nation’s capital, stocked with a united and common message and a hashtag (#NCSAontheHill).

The seven-man team swapped its Lincoln headquarters for The Federal City, arriving in Washington D.C. throughout Sunday before convening for a dinner briefing in Chinatown with Foresight Law + Policy founder Reg Leichty, a Nebraska native and Milford graduate.

Around the table sat NASA President John Skretta (Norris), NASBO President Brad Dahl (Fremont), NAESP President Jason Calahan (Hershey), NASES President Jason Harris (Columbus) and NSASSP President Brandon Mowinkel (Milford), in addition to Dr. Blomstedt and Dr. Dulaney, who took a comprehensive approach to planning the trip.

“I wanted to revamp the way we did visits to Washington to be more inclusive of all categories of school administration, including superintendents, principals, SPED directors and business managers,” Dulaney said. “We are a council of all administrators and I hoped to have representation from each group.” 

Part I) Council of Chief State School Officers

The group gathered Monday morning for breakfast and one final briefing session pertaining to the day’s agenda, the first item on which was a morning meeting at the Council of Chief State School Officers offices, a short walk from the Phoenix Park Hotel.

Dr. Blomstedt, a member of CCSSO’s board, drove discussions covering a wide variety of topics, most of which centered on equity in education. CCSSO staff, including Executive Director Carissa Moffat Miller, shared with the advocacy team their strategic plan and solicited input. 

“This was my first visit and meeting with CCSSO,” said Calahan. “Their strategic plan focuses on six goals that directly align with every district and every building in our state. We’re all on the same page and it’s important to address these goals cohesively with like-minded agencies such as CCSSO.”

Throughout the meeting, the team shared experiences drawn from their own districts. Having Blomstedt on the CCSSO Board will lead to future continuity, said Dahl. 

Promotion was discussed extensively, a theme that has taken off in Nebraska thanks to the I Love Public Schools movement.

“The talk about CCSSO’s strategic plan had an impact on me,” Harris said. “Currently, Columbus Public Schools is working on its strategic plan and the insight I received about equity and promotion will allow me to go back and share with the directors in my district different ways we can strengthen our plan.”

It’s imperative, Mowinkel added, for Nebraska’s educators and administrators to be proactive on the federal level. There is always work to be done, he said.

“Whether discussing equity, teacher training or special education, we have to continue to share our thoughts and insights as professionals on how decisions at the federal level impact our local districts,” Mowinkel said. “We are all in this together. Whether you represent NCSA, CCSSO, NDE or a lawmaker, it is critical that these entities can work collaboratively to do what is best for our students.”

Nebraska can sometimes be casually lumped in the “fly-over” state category, but when it comes to the state’s public education system, it often serves as a model of success for the rest of the country.

“Nebraska has some of the most supportive student environments and schools who serve a very wide variety of communities and demographics and do so while building tremendous student achievement profiles,” said Skretta, NCSA Chair-elect. “Nebraska needs to be recognized as a voice in national policy discussions in education, and this advocacy trip helped us advance the cause.”

The chance to speak on Nebraska’s schools at a national level is a chance to let the state shine, Harris commented.

“Too many times we think people know what’s going on in our schools,” he said. “However, they often do not, and we need to tell our story.”

Part II) Senator Deb Fischer

With a light rain falling and rather fashionable umbrellas in hand, the team took a scenic stroll towards the U.S. Capitol and the Russell Senate Building, which houses the offices of U.S. Senator Deb Fischer.

For half an hour, Commissioner Blomstedt, seated at the head of one end of the table, directed conversations with Fischer, seated at the head of the other end. The advocacy team offered input throughout the discussion, as several topics were covered, ranging from maintenance of effort, the Perkins Act and English Language Learners.

“It’s important that our leaders in D.C. know of the great work being done by our educators in Nebraska on a daily basis,” said Dahl, who was asked specifically about the Pathways 2 Tomorrow career education program in ESU 2 (which was featured in a March 15thNPSA article). “We hoped to communicate the importance of federal funding, especially for subgroups of our student population in Nebraska, to Senator Fischer.”

Calahan has made multiple trips to Washington as NAESP President, and each time he takes with him the same goal.

“We need to keep public education at the forefront of (their) minds,” Calahan said. “Senator Fischer’s office has always been open and honest in our discussions with them. It’s important for them to hear the human stories from our buildings so they see schools as more than just a line item.”

Skretta spoke afterwards about the power of presence. For each topic Blomstedt shifted the conversation to, a member of the advocacy team was able to draw upon personal experiences in their own district.

“By actually being together at the table, we were able to have more impactful conversations,” Skretta said. “Having our Commissioner of Education joined by actual building and district school administrators who could represent and describe our tremendous schools made our message much more persuasive.”

With a busy morning in the books, the team was off to lunch at “The Monocle”, where they reconvened with Moffat Miller and CCSSO in a history-ridden eatery that has hosted a lengthy list of political icons through the years, but (probably) never a public education advocacy group made up of school administrators from Nebraska.

While the trip was a productive one, time spent with colleagues over good food and meaningful conversations will be remembered equally as fondly by the inaugural members of the NCSA/NDE’s Advocacy Team.

“This experience afforded me the opportunity to strengthen relationships and learn from some of the best school leaders in Nebraska,” said Calahan. “We’re all in this together, and one can never have too many perspectives or too many contacts with leaders. Experts you know and trust.”

Part III) US Department of Education

After Senator Fischer’s office led a tour through the Capitol, the group made its final trek of the afternoon, pushing their Apple Watches well over daily step goals before reaching the footsteps of the U.S. Department of Education.

The group passed through security and checked in for a meeting with Jason Botel, acting Asst. Sec. of Education for ESEA.

Botel was joined by his DoE team, some of whom played a direct role in approving Nebraska’s ESSA plan in early June. The hour-long meeting covered plans on early steps of implementation and preliminary monitoring practices.

“I was impressed by the manner in which the DoE team, under Secretary Botel in particular, emphasized flexibility and adaptability, both in state ESSA plans as well as in encouraging districts to demonstrate a variety of means of meeting ESSA compliance while promoting student achievement,” said Skretta.

The meeting was timely, and the DoE staff was receptive and thoughtful in their responses as questions came flowing in from Blomstedt and each member of the advocacy team.

“Putting names to faces after several phone conversations was important in that meeting,” said Calahan. “ESSA will be driving federal dollars for education for the foreseeable future and the meeting with them strengthened that relationship between the federal and state decision-makers.”

For Harris, the meeting provided insight into how his district could potentially be able to spend ESSA money towards Title 1.

“Too many times, I think we leave money on the table not knowing if an initiative will be approved,” Harris said. 

This new model, a thorough assembly of representatives travelling to Washington together, is one Dulaney and Blomstedt plan to use moving forward.

“I had a great sense that we are a strong force when all levels of administration are seen together, working alongside one another and hearing the same thing at the same time from federal officials,” Dulaney said.

With the trip winding down, and thousands of Capitals fans flocking to Massachusetts Ave, the first members of NCSA/NDE’s Advocacy Team met for coffee Tuesday morning. Their flights back to the Heartland were staggered throughout the day and into Wednesday morning, but their first reflections of the trip were fairly well-aligned. 

“Never doubt the knowledge base we possess as Nebraska educators,” Skretta said. “We have a lot to celebrate in Nebraska schools, and we also face many demands from the state and federal levels. Through NCSA and NDE’s alliance, we are poised to be able to articulate these well.”

Ventures of this sort can be somewhat intimidating, Calahan said, but Nebraska’s educators have plenty to be proud when it comes to what they represent. The message delivered to the federal level is an important one.

“Nebraska schools are some of the best in the country, and although we will always continue to improve-the stories, experiences and perspectives you bring from Nebraska are some of the most successful they will ever hear,” Calahan said. 

“Be proud of that and own it in Washington.”

 

 
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