‘Gus’ Steinhilber, Longtime NSBA Official, Dies at 81

By Mark Walsh — August 22, 2013 2 min read
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August W. Steinhilber Jr., who helped shape education policy as the top federal lobbyist and later the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, has died at age 81.

No cause of death was given, but he had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in recent years, an NSBA official said.

Mr. Steinhilber, known as Gus, had served in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as the deputy assistant commissioner of education for legislation before joining the Alexandria, Va.-based NSBA in 1968.

He created a grassroots network of school board members, the Federal Relations Network, to lobby Congress. And he helped create a coalition of education groups that lobbied for more federal funding of schools. The group, whose name later became the Committee for Education Funding, was described as a “slumbering giant” during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, when federal aid to schools increased significantly. But it awoke from its slumber in the 1980’s, to battle President Ronald Reagan’s proposals to cut or consolidate federal education programs.

Mr. Steinhilber later became the general counsel and associate executive director of NSBA. He helped write more than 50 friend-of-the-court briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court representing the viewpoints of board members and districts.

His brief in a 1986 case about student speech rights, Bethel School District v. Fraser, exemplified his advocacy on behalf of school boards. In that case, the justices ruled 7-2 that a Washington state school district did not violate the First Amendment rights of a high school student when it disciplined him for giving a speech that was full of sexual innuendo at a student assembly.

“No single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools,” Mr. Steinhilber wrote in the brief. “While students do not ‘shed their rights at the schoolhouse door,’ neither do their First Amendment rights endow them with the right to adopt their own rules of conduct. That is the province of the elected representatives of the parents and other adults in the community.”

“The maintenance of discipline in the schools requires not only that students be restrained from assaulting one another, abusing drugs and alcohol, and committing other crimes, but also that students conform themselves to the standards of conduct prescribed by school authorities,” Mr. Steinhilber continued. “School boards have the duty to protect the students from indecent speech.”

Mr. Steinhilber was always patient in discussing complex school law topics with reporters, including this one. He retired from NSBA in 1998, but remained active in groups such as the association’s Council of School Attorneys and the Education Law Association.

He died Aug. 20, and is survived by his wife, Dolores; three children; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.