2015 National Leaders Conference: Principals Take ESEA Action

By Meredith Barnett
February 2015, Volume 38, Issue 6

On Monday, February 23—the first day of NAESP’s National Leaders Conference—communication coach Nan Tolbert gave principals a piece of advice for meeting with lawmakers:

“The main thing,” she said, “is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

That main issue during this year’s National Leaders Conference (NLC) is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently being reworked by both the House and Senate. The two-day conference brought nearly 200 principals from across the country together to Washington, D.C. to engage with top education thought leaders. Principals met with members of Congress, including Sens. Al Franken and Ted Cruz, to advocate for supportive education policies based on NAESP’s advocacy agenda. The agenda included:

  • Opposing Title I “portability;”
  • Supporting the Principal Training and Recruitment Act of 2015;
  • Opposing the House ESEA bill (Student Success Act, H.R. 5); and
  • Including early childhood education as a title in ESEA.

Principals prepare for Capitol Hill meetings with leadership sessions.

Principals prepared for these visits with a series of Monday sessions on education policy issues. First, a rousing discussion between Pat Buchanan and Eleanor Clift set the tone for the day: both political commentators stressed the gulf between Democrat and Republican lawmakers. In the question-and-answer session that followed, Buchanan and Clift fielded queries on vouchers and income inequality.

Buchanan criticized current education policy for failing to narrow the achievement gap.

“That gap hasn’t been closed and we’ve been working on this for 50 years,” he said.

“More money for preschool would go a long way,” Clift interjected, to applause from principals. “We know how to fix this, but we’re not putting the resources into it.”

NLC attendees pose for a selfie with Eleanor Clift.

Early education came up again that afternoon, when NAESP Associate Executive Director for Policy, Public Affairs & Special Projects Kelly Pollitt briefed principals on talking points for their meetings on Capitol Hill, including urging lawmakers to support pre-K-3 alignment. Principals also studied change leadership and communications, first with a case study guided by June West of the University of Virginia’s Darden School, and second, with intensive interview coaching from Nan Tolbert. Tolbert offered principals pointers for their meetings with lawmakers, arming them with key phrases to flag their important points in discussions.


Monday’s sessions wrapped up with a presentation from Jack Jennings, a longtime Congressional staffer and education policy expert. Jennings gave principals a snapshot of his hot-off-the-presses book, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools, which calls for lawmakers to start from scratch on education policy and designate education as a fundamental right.

“This time, the education reform should be based on what educators know works,” he said. He ended his session with a message echoed by Tolbert: “If you’re not working on your agenda, you’re working on someone else’s agenda.”

Ultimately, in their dozens of meetings with lawmakers, the 200 NLC attendees raised their voices on the principal’s agenda: smart policies to support their schools.

Meredith Barnett is Public Affairs Associate at NAESP.

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