In preparation for their big day on Capitol Hill, board members attending the final general session of the 39th Annual Federal Relations Network heard from three members of Congress who reflect the diversity of political persuasions across the country.
Rep. Rush Holt, a former teacher, Congressional Science Fellow, and five-time “Jeopardy” game show winner has long been an advocate of education.
“I think you can say the first answer to every question is education,” said Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who was the session’s first speaker. “The biggest issue facing Congress maybe should be education, but it was the debt ceiling, something that should’ve been disposed of easily but that led to creation of the so-called super committee, which didn’t accomplish what is was charged with and as result left with automatic cuts.”
The annual FRN Conference, which runs through Tuesday, drew more than 700 school board members — selected by their state associations — and state association staff to Washington to learn about the most current federal policies and issues that will impact their schools. On Tuesday, participants will spend a day meeting with their representatives on Capitol Hill to further discuss federal issues and pending legislation and advocate for the needs of their school districts.
Holt said rather than implementing drastic, non-specific budget cuts, Congress would do better to talk about investing in education.
“And there is no better investment,” Holt said. “We should be working on bills that fix problems we know exist without abandoning the poor and minority children.”
While on the Hill, Holt said board members should make their case with data and real-life stories.
“I think you will discover if you haven’t already, that the decisions about legislation are not made only the basis of charts and graphs, but also on the basis of stories … the story of what your students need.”
Rep. Phil Roe, a former obstetrician, was full of stories that he shared willingly with the audience.
Raised on a farm in middle Tennessee, Roe grew up in home with no running water or plumbing and attended a rural school with few walls and even fewer teachers. But those teachers had a positive influence.
“They made an impression on me … and without a strong education I wouldn’t be here today, though when you can deliver your own constituency that helps as well,” joked Roe, who pointed out that one board member in the audience was one of the nearly 5,000 babies he brought into the world.
When he gets down in the dumps, Roe said he often visits his area schools and conducts town hall style meetings. “You can’t help but come out in a good mood when you do that,” he said.
Unfortunately, the mood among teachers and education has not been so cheerful lately.
“We’re making it impossible with all rule and regulations to educate,” Roe said. “The federal government does not do big very well … the thing I want to do and many of us want to do on both sides of the aisle is push as much of the decision making back down to the local level. No one understands your situation better than you do.”
That also happens to be the same position of Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), a former English professor and school board member.
“I believe that a well educated citizenry is the surest way of keeping our society intact,” Foxx said. “We are the great country in the world, no question about it, however, I believe we can lose that categorization and lose it easily if we’re not smart.”
Describing herself as a small government conservative, Foxx said she was convinced America must reduce the size and scope of the federal government.
“I defy you to find education as a responsibility of the federal government,” Foxx said to the crowd.