Feature                                                      Pages 30-34


Show Me the Money, Honey

Strategies from AASA for education leaders taking on the role of appropriations lobbying


Squeezed by four consecutive years of budget cuts as the nation’s greatest recession wears on, our country’s public schools have found themselves operating under increasingly tighter fiscal constraints while facing ever-changing demands and enrollments.

Reductions in financial support to schools at the federal level have compounded cutbacks at the state and local levels, meaning school leaders must stretch every dollar to go further and school districts are doing as much or more with less.

 Noelle Ellerson
Noelle Ellerson with Jean-Claude Brizard, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

In such a fiscal climate, advocacy for government appropriations — especially knowing how to make a compelling case for continued and increased education funding — has never been a more crucial skill for school system leaders. In any list of advocacy tips, an understanding of the education appropriations process is a proper starting point.

Terms Defined
On behalf of K-12 schooling, AASA’s advocacy efforts at the federal level are guided by a member-driven legislative agenda, updated annually, that outlines our organization’s federal priorities. The agenda covers a range of topics, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, education technology, the Rural Education Achievement Program and education funding. These policy areas reflect federal legislation, which is grouped into two categories, authorizing language and appropriations language.

Authorizing language is best described as legislation that creates agencies, programs or other government functions. Authorizing language serves the purpose of establishing parameters for government programs and agencies but does not actually fund them.

Appropriations language, on the other hand, is legislative language that actually provides the funding to run the agency or its program. ESEA authorizes federal education programs — Title I, REAP, Ed Tech (officially known as Enhancing Education Through Technology) — that are funded through the federal appropriations process.

Appropriations is an annual process, meaning education leaders and community members have an opportunity each year to make the case for financial support. While federal education dollars represent a small portion of overall education spending in the United States (roughly 8 percent), the funds play a significant role in many school districts, without which the districts would be hard-pressed to maintain programs, serv-ices and personnel.

Pushing Ahead
The heavy lifting of effective advocacy centers on your ability to build and maintain a viable working relationship with your congressional delegation and their education staffers. Over the years, AASA has developed a few strategies that we see as the foundation to advocacy that works.

Weigh in early, weigh in often. Policy decisions are made whether or not you share your informed voice on a proposal. As public school administrators, you are community and education leaders with direct contact to the community and an important understanding of how federal policy is or is not functioning on a day-to-day basis.

Maintain a regular dialogue. While it is good to weigh in when something is urgent or pressing, a more meaningful approach is to maintain an ongoing conversation. It doesn’t have to be daily or weekly. A monthly call or e-mail to your congressional delegation can go a long way.

For maximum impact, I suggest scheduling a weekly five-minute calendar reminder. In the first week, e-mail one of your U.S. senators or their education staffer. In the second week, do the same to your House of Representatives member. During the third week, contact your second senator, and take a break on the fourth week. It is a quick way to point out something that worked well or went wrong relating to a federal initiative. The point is to maintain regular contact with your elected officials in Washington.

Make it real. By building regular conversation with your delegation where you share the ins and outs of how federal policy is functioning at ground level, you and your school district become an anecdote, or the “face” of the policy for your congressional representative. When a policy is proposed or under consideration, the congressional office is inclined to think of the local districts with which they regularly communicate. Why shouldn’t it be your district?

Further, during congressional recesses, invite your representatives and their staff to visit your schools and see firsthand how your district operates.

Share both the good and the bad. Think about the strongest working relationships you have in your district. Odds are, they are driven largely by open, honest conversation. Certainly, some people share only the most positive, and others speak up whenever they think the sky is falling.

However, the most helpful working relationships balance the developments, and the same can be said of managing your relationships with your congressional delegation. As you reach out to them, don’t hesitate to mix in an example of federal policy with favorable effects (say, emergency dollars that enabled your district to save three teachers’ positions) with something that is not serving your students well (perhaps budgetary pressure from the chronic underfunding of IDEA).

Fiscal Talk
These four general strategies apply to advocacy work on appropriations or authorizations in state capitals and the halls of Congress. The federal economy, while more stable than the state/local level, is far from calm. There is a hyper-focus on fiscal responsibility relating to the nation’s expenditures, revenues and debt/deficit. In fact, in the last year, there have been several significant changes that will affect the federal funding climate for the next decade. 


Party politics and school tax votes

Additional resources

Most notably, Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling, a contentious vote resulting in a Budget Control Act that establishes 10 years of budget caps. Budget restrictions on top of a fiscal-hawk-like federal climate and state and local instability mean that federal appropriations advocacy is a heavy lift, and more important than ever.

Here are some talking points to help you in your advocacy for education funding:

Not every dollar in the federal budget is the same. Dollars in different programs have different returns on investment, and education is one of the few areas that regularly delivers a positive return on investment. Just as a dollar invested in education garners more than a dollar in return, every dollar removed from education represents more than a dollar lost. As an investment, education deserves protection and priority treatment from Congress.

Investing in education helps our children and our economy. Continued, increased investment in the nation’s schools ensures long-term prosperity of students and our economy. Level funding or rollbacks increase class size and reduce serv-ices and support for students and undermine progress on improving student achievement, closing achievement gaps and increasing high school graduation and postsecondary education attendance. An educated workforce is crucial to long-term economic stability and growth.

Prioritize federal investment in outstanding commitments to serving disadvantaged populations through Title I and IDEA. Many of the reform ideas that the administration pushes through competitive funding can be accomplished through existing statute. Changes to ESEA within reauthorization, as well as increased flexibility at the local level, will allow all school districts, not just those winning a funding competition, to implement long-term, systemic changes.

Steer additional education dollars toward existing federal formulas. As Congress increases its investment in education, new dollars should be directed toward formula programs such as Title I and IDEA before competitive grants like Race to the Top or Investing in Innovation, often referred to as I3.

Appropriations lobby is more than defense. The least effective approach to appropriations lobbying is the use of the simple plea “Don’t cut my program.” Even in the best of fiscal times, this argument isn’t helpful to appropriators. When spending cuts and level funding are the new operating norm, simple requests to protect funds falls on deaf ears as congressional representatives and their staff try to balance the needs of their constituents with the fiscal realities of the day.

Do more than defend your program. Go on offense to substantiate why it should be continued. Use solid data as well as anecdotes to demonstrate growth, effectiveness or impact. You could demonstrate the number of teaching jobs saved, the gains in student performance or the likely negative impact should funding dry up.

Noelle Ellerson is assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy at AASA. E-mail:



Give your feedback

Share this article

Order this issue