Equity & Diversity Commentary

Now Is the Time for Superintendents to Get Political

By David E. DeMatthews — June 22, 2018 4 min read

On June 20, a group of superintendents from El Paso area school districts convened at the port of entry in Tornillo, Texas. Standing near a tent encampment housing undocumented children, they publicly called for an end to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their families.

Some might ask whether it is wise for superintendents to insert themselves into a national policy debate. Others might suggest a superintendent’s time would best be spent focusing on organizational and academic issues rather than immigration policies. Isn’t the superintendency burdensome enough when just addressing local, school-related issues?

These questions are worth asking given traditional superintendent job expectations, but the answers must reflect an overriding concern for the well-being of children and a commitment to human rights.

Darwin Micheal Mejia holds hands with his mother, Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia, following their reunion on June 22, in Linthicum, Md. The Justice Department agreed to release Mejia-Mejia's son after she sued the U.S. government following their separation at the U.S. border.

As a professor who specializes in the preparation of principals and superintendents, I know superintendents are not always trained to take political stances or publicly challenge the government on unjust policies. Superintendents’ roles are generally expected to involve managing and leading their districts, not political advocacy. When superintendents do “play politics,” it traditionally involves raising funds for their schools, making decisions about school closures, and navigating difficult financial constraints.

Superintendents already have many challenges on their plates. They are tasked with setting a district vision, being instructional leaders, communicating with various stakeholders, listening to different constituencies and interest groups, and making countless management decisions related to finance, policy, program implementation, and human resources. They must assuage the concerns of school board members, build positive relationships with the media, and advocate for resources and community support.

Despite this expansive set of job requirements, superintendents cannot neglect the fact that they are important community leaders with responsibilities that extend beyond the administrative work. They oversee vital public institutions that serve not only students but families and communities.

Superintendents have an awareness of community needs that places them in a privileged position to advocate and leverage resources to challenge unjust policies and forms of marginalization. They often have social-media accounts with thousands of followers and can easily disseminate information. Superintendents also have the ability to offer their schools as forums for community dialogue and organizing.

Superintendents have an awareness of community needs that places them in a privileged position to advocate."

It is now time for superintendents and their organizations to engage in significant action to challenge policies that harm children. Although the Trump administration claims to have ended family separation policies, many already-separated families have yet to be reunified, and the wellbeing of immigrant children remains in doubt. Superintendents can count on allies across different public sectors who are also concerned about the current immigration policies. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, responded to President Trump’s executive order ending family separation with a statement contenting that ongoing “zero tolerance” immigration policies and family detention will still traumatize vulnerable children.

Superintendents can work with the medical community and other stakeholders to challenge harmful policies that negatively impact children. Superintendents must also extend their advocacy efforts into their own professional associations, such as AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and the Council of the Great City Schools. These organizations are powerful networks that could advocate for changes to harmful immigration policies.

When superintendents convene with school boards or at state and national conferences, they must reconsider their priorities, question key community issues that impact those they seek to educate, and commit to the true purposes of public education. Superintendents need to ask themselves, board members, and staff, “What are the issues that are marginalizing our communities?” “Are we silencing ourselves out of fear or ignorance?” “How can we organize with other leaders to hold our government more accountable?”

Ultimately, superintendents must develop their own sense of values. They must be prepared to advocate for those values as voices of leadership in their communities. The current political climate has made many individuals want to withdraw from engaging in politics altogether or claim neutrality, but superintendents cannot remain silent or neutral.

The El Paso area superintendents that spoke out against the Trump administration’s policies of separating families represent a powerful example of how district leaders can collectively engage in action to protect students and families. Hopefully, more superintendents will move beyond what has traditionally been considered within the scope of the superintendency to collaborate with local organizers and engage in advocacy efforts.

Extensive reporting on the current immigration policies clearly demonstrates that children are being harmed. Such practices require any educational leader to speak out, because public schools have a vested interest in the emotional and physical well-being of children. Moreover, public schools are the stewards of our democracy and tasked with instilling in students a commitment to civil and human rights. They must lead by example and speak for those without a voice.

As a tenured professor who trains future superintendents but who is not tasked with doing the actual job, I recognize that asking superintendents to engage in advocacy and community leadership that can threaten their employment may ring hollow. While I recognize that such advocacy is easier said than done, I sincerely hope that superintendents recognize and take full advantage of the power and position they have to speak for those who are marginalized, voiceless, and trapped.

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