AASA's Ellerson Ng: Education policy 'cannot be a zero-sum game'
The School Superintendents Association's associate executive director of policy and advocacy shares how her role has evolved and what she sees coming in 2019.
2018 was a big year for education policy. The midterm elections brought a new wave of educators into public office, all states' ESSA accountability systems were approved, a federal school safety commission formed and released its final recommendations, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the top Republican in Congress on education, has announced his retirement.
However, that doesn't even begin to encapsulate the ed policy happenings of the past year. And for Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of policy and advocacy for The School Superintendents Association, staying on top of federal education politics and policy is part of her daily itinerary.
With the start of the new year, Education Dive spoke to Ellerson Ng about her role, how she's seen the political arena evolve and what issues she expects to see within federal education policy in 2019.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: What does your work life look like on a day-to-day basis, for the most part?
NOELLE ELLERSON NG: It’s important to note that I focus on federal policy. That said, state policy is far more consequential — and federal policy definitely has consequences in that it sets the tone and tenor and stage for our nation’s public schools. But state and local policy is far more consequential, because there’s just more of it, and state and locals provide most of the money. So, more of the impact comes at those levels, which is where it should.
I spend about 30% of my time on the road, traveling out to our state associations — being at their conferences, providing federal updates and getting feedback from our members. The bulk of my time is spent in coordination with, planning for and participating in coalitions. We have a coalition for every single issue we work. There is no issue that we work completely on our own, in large part because a superintendent doesn’t run a school system on their own.
They work with their school board, principals, [Parent Teacher Association], parents, the state board of education. If we tried to move a policy at the federal level without working with those other national groups, we’re just failing the superintendents. On the flip side, there’s no [Capitol] Hill staffer that’s doing their job right that’s going to rely on the feedback of just one group. So, we spend a lot of time in coalitions, gathering and information, planning strategies, drafting up memos, writing, research, all that stuff.
How do you work with educators at the state or local level, and what does that relationship look like?
ELLERSON NG: We 100% are working with superintendents every day, and they’re always working at the state level because that’s where they live and that’s where they operate. AASA never takes a position on a state bill, and if I get a press call about a state bill, or I get a question about a state policy, we will always, without fail, redirect them to the state association.
We do offer some support to our state affiliates. We might provide a forum or a networking opportunity for lobbyists from our state associations to come and talk about trends of what they’re seeing in their state legislatures. But that’s just to allow them to coordinate. We don’t staff it, we don’t make recommendations — we just do analysis.
Do you find that you work with superintendents in advocating for federal policy?
ELLERSON NG: That’s really where I spend a lot of my time. We do a lot of work reviewing, analyzing and communicating about federal policy to our members and to the Hill, but we also support our superintendents in their advocacy. That can include their efforts to weigh in with their members of Congress, as well as any conversations they may have in their own community or district about what is being considered, what a policy is and what it means for our schools. So, our work is kind of split in regard to those two.
Education cannot be a zero-sum game. It can’t be a “my way or no way” when you’re talking about educating 50 million children.
Noelle Ellerson Ng
Associate executive director of policy and advocacy, The School Superintendents Association
As we wrap up 2018 and head into 2019, what are going to be the biggest issues in federal education policy?
ELLERSON NG: I think we’re pretty much done this calendar year in terms of education. It was a very busy summer and fall, but our funding is covered. The biggest issue right now is whether or not they’re going to fund the rest of the government, and that does not include our slice of the pie.
Looking to 2019, I think we’ll see an effort around the Higher Education Act, so we’ll follow that. We’ll see what Congress wants to do around the 2020 funding proposal, and there’s a funding cliff — so they’ll have to vote to raise the funding cap — so we’ll be mobilizing around that. If the Higher Education Act can’t move — which is plausible, given the significant changes Betsy DeVos is making to Title IX and how that will likely make it harder for [Sen.] Patti Murray (D-Wash.) and [Sen.] Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to come together — then we’re prepared to look at the student debt and privacy law if Congress picks that up.
There will be a lot of activity on education, particularly given the change in leadership on the House side, so we’ll see the House do some ESSA oversight, what DeVos says on those hearings and how that plays out. I think we’ll be following to see if there’s any bills introduced around DACA or the DREAM Act, which is plausible. DACA is a bipartisan issue … so this is one area where the change in House leadership impacts the calculus of bill strategy. We’ll be looking to see if they do anything on infrastructure, too. Those are some of our big ones.
Will the shift of the house to a majority-Democratic body have any effects on things you’re working on or the nature of what you do?
ELLERSON NG: It doesn’t impact our commitment to the work, because at the end of the day, the schools are going to open regardless of what the political makeup is. It’s kind of like how we didn’t take a position on DeVos, because regardless of who the secretary of education is, we have to work with them. Same thing goes with the Hill. It really can’t hurt if it’s an all-Republican, all-Democratic or split Congress. We’re going to have to work with them. Now, the strategy, the partnerships and where our stronger contacts are — that changes, and we have to know how to read that and which conversations to lead with when we go into different offices.
But we have had really good luck in the past when we’ve had a split Congress, because it forces the hand of the chambers to know they can’t do a hyper-partisan bill in their chamber, because it’s going to go nowhere in the other chamber. Most of the time, at the floor level, they do want to have a track record of success, and so it forces people to be a little bit more compromise-driven. So that stuff changes a little bit.
It seems like it’s harder to finding compromise lately, especially at a federal level. How has that evolved during your time in this role?
ELLERSON NG: I don’t think it’s changed as much for education policy, because the role of the federal government in education is more narrow than it is in other aspects of policy that touches the whole nation. More broadly, there’s constant coverage of what’s going on in Congress, and there’s a tendency toward [covering] what’s not going on or what’s going wrong. That has definitely gotten more intense in my time at AASA, and I think Congress, and politics in general, has become more partisan and divisive, and there’s this idea that politics is a zero-sum game.
That is a flawed premise on its own, but that is particularly fatal in education, because education cannot be a zero-sum game. It can’t be a “my way or no way” when you’re talking about educating 50 million children. There has to be — there is — a path forward, and you have to move the needle to ensure that federal policy is strengthening public education.
Another distinction that’s important to highlight is what is covered in the media doesn’t fully capture the day-to-day nuance and reality of the Hill. There are some days where I am worst enemies to some committee staff, because I am not helpful to them. And the next day, I’m in there, and we will be buddy-buddy because we know that on this issue, we get along. That goes back to zero-sum. I cannot hate you all the time, and I cannot love you all the time, and if I operate under this idea that we are either the best of friends or mortal enemies, anything less than that is lost.
And that’s a huge risk you should not be taking if you’re doing member-driven advocacy, because you have a responsibility to advocate for all aspects of the policy. Sure, there are some issues where we work better with the Republican offices, and there are some issues where we work better with Democratic offices. It’s up to us as professionals to work together when we can and work on working together better when we don’t get along. That doesn’t get covered as much, and I think the Hill staff — and the committee staff in particular — do a really great job of saying, “I don’t need to like you every day. But I do need to be able to work with you every day.”
What are the dangers of the average citizen believing it is a zero-sum game?
ELLERSON NG: I think it precludes you from being able to participate in a meaningful way in conversations to which you could be a critical value add. I’ll leave it at that.
Follow Jessica Campisi on Twitter