Feature                                                   Pages 23-29


Front-Line Advocacy 

Four school system leaders on working to effect legislative change and federal support

EDITOR'S NOTE: School Administrator invited four veteran school system leaders who’ve been active in legislative advocacy, often in conjunction with AASA, to describe a particular aspect of their experiences and what makes them productive players in the advocacy arena.

Fighting Off a Voucher Measure


Robert Grimesey

In September 2010, the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the proposed National Defense Authorization Act. The amendment, known as Section 583, authorized a Defense Department pilot voucher program to mitigate the cost of private school tuition for special-needs children of military parents.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a member of the Armed Services Committee, was an early supporter of the amendment.
Apart from redirecting public school dollars to private education, the amendment could have reduced protections and services provided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for those students who used the vouchers. The proposal also could have decreased federal impact aid for Virginia’s school divisions that adjoined the state’s many military bases.

Senate approval would send the defense authorization act with the pilot attached to the more voucher-friendly House of Representatives, where final passage was even more certain. It was imperative the amendment be removed or modified before being sent by Webb’s committee to the Senate floor.

Last Feb. 1, Webb’s office announced the voucher provision had been removed from the bill. The senator’s change of heart resulted from close collaboration among the AASA public policy staff, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, the Virginia School Boards Association and a pragmatic elected official and his responsive staff.

Constant Contact
The process began more than four months earlier, in mid-September, when Bruce Hunter, AASA’s associate executive director of advocacy, policy and communications, alerted about 15 Northern Virginia superintendents to Webb’s support for the voucher amendment. (Hunter’s legislative briefings have been a fixture on the Virginia superintendents’ annual retreat agenda for years.) That same day, the issue was highlighted in the AASA e-newsletter Legislative Corps Weekly Report.

Armed with this up-to-date insight, I contacted Webb’s legislative assistant for education policy four days later. I also reported the matter to our state superintendents association, including Tom Smith, the chief legislative liaison. Smith already had registered for the AASA Legislative Advocacy Conference later that week, so he used his time in Washington to visit the offices of each of Virginia’s congressmen and senators, including members of Webb’s staff. By the end of the week, Webb’s office was well aware of VASS’s concerns.

Ongoing communication between Smith and Noelle Ellerson, AASA’s assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy, continued from October through December. Ellerson maintained regular contact with Webb’s staff. Meanwhile, Smith used the VASS Legislative Conference in October and a second VASS legislative meeting in November to keep the membership apprised of developments as he received them from Ellerson. By Dec. 3, Ellerson reported that Webb’s office was receiving many letters, e-mails and calls from VASS and VSBA members expressing concerns about the pilot voucher.

Three days later, Ellerson informed the VASS leadership that Webb was “rethinking things.” She cautioned, however, that the senator remained under pressure from special education advocates to support the amendment. Under direction from Smith and VASS Executive Director Al Butler, Virginia’s superintendents continued to press their concerns through letters and e-mails.

By Dec. 16, a Webb staff member reported to Ellerson that the senator was “hopeful to work something out with [the defense authorization act] before the Congress adjourned.” Ellerson advised the VASS leaders to shift the message to “supporting passage of an authorization bill rid of the voucher language.” She also recommended VASS members communicate with Virginia’s other senator, Mark Warner, in the event the defense reauthorization made it to the Senate floor with the voucher project intact. Again, VASS members responded to their state leadership’s call, and the pressure continued.


Front-Line Advocacy, Goering

Front-Line Advocacy, Smith

Front-Line Advocacy, Gooden

Bruce Hunter on AASA's message deliveryman

Recognized Impact
Eventually, Section 583 was stripped from the version of the National Defense Authorization Act that moved to the Senate floor. No similar provision was included in the version approved in the House of Representatives. In January, Webb sent a letter to each VASS member who had contacted his office about the voucher pilot in which he acknowledged the provision had been excluded as a result of “the concerns that you and other education advocates expressed.”

Upon receipt of those words, Butler, our state association executive, wrote this to Smith and me: “Your work has paid off with Webb. … Linking with AASA has helped on this issue.”

Bob Grimesey is superintendent of the Orange County Public Schools in Orange, Va. E-mail:


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