As state politics increasingly leave district leaders with complex and controversial mandates to navigate, most superintendents feel their input would be valuable in shaping state policies, but their actual engagement in that process is relatively low.
Often, it’s because they feel their input and expertise fall on deaf ears and their efforts are a waste of time that could be better spent within their schools, according to new research that sheds some light on why more superintendents don’t try to use their position and credibility to influence state policies that affect them, the staff who work in their districts, and students.
Despite more than 90 percent of superintendents saying they feel engaging in state education policymaking is important, about 85 percent said they attended two or fewer state board of education meetings in the past year. Sixty five percent said they attended two or fewer state legislative events, according to the research, conducted by Rachel White, an assistant professor in the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.
“I think it’s important because when we’re thinking about providing the best educational experiences for kids, we have to think about what are the most powerful levers to do that,” White said. “I think policy is a really strong lever to make broad change within a system.”
In recent years, schools have become the focal point of many contentious political battles, including over how—or if—students are taught about sexuality and race. Those debates have often played out intensely at the state level, where lawmakers have shaped laws restricting classroom discussion about LGBTQ+ issues and race, and taken aim at transgender students’ ability to participate in athletics, use the bathrooms aligned with their gender identity, and be acknowledged by names and pronouns that differ from their sex assigned at birth.
State governments generally provide a large portion of school districts’ annual budgets, and district-level decisions are often shaped by state policies and available funding.
Yet, lawmakers making those decisions often have little experience in education outside of their personal experience as a student or parent, and experts—in this case, superintendents—are not consulted or included in the process, White said. That can add another layer of stress for district leaders, tasked with implementing those policies.
To be sure, a nationally representative survey conducted by the RAND Corporation and the Center on Reinventing Public Education earlier this year found that superintendents reported high stress levels, regardless of gender, race, years of experience, and district size, but superintendents of color “almost universally said their work was ‘often’ or ‘always’ stressful.”
Eighty eight percent of respondents said “the intrusion of political issues and opinions into schooling” was a source of stress in their job, the highest percentage for the stressors cited.
Barriers to participation in state policymaking
For her research, White interviewed 58 superintendents in Ohio and Virginia to ask open-ended questions about their beliefs and experiences engaging in state politics. Then, in the summer of 2020, White conducted a national survey of superintendents, in which about 7 percent of the country’s district leaders responded. That response rate is similar to other national surveys, White noted.
More than 90 percent agreed that their perspectives would be valuable to state policymakers and that it’s important for superintendents to be engaged with state politics. About 40 percent felt they should be involved “all the time,” while 21 percent felt they should only be involved “sometimes” or in specific circumstances. Ten percent said superintendents should not be involved at all, according to the research.
Those superintendents who said being engaged in state education policy is important generally cited at least one of three reasons: It’s part of the job; they are experts and can provide concrete evidence of how decisions will affects students; and it sets a good example for others, especially students.
“From a broader perspective, some superintendents echoed a slightly different version of a common mantra of democratic societies of, ‘If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,’ ” White’s working paper says.
For those who felt less compelled to engage with state lawmakers, “pessimism was often rooted in not feeling as though the effort was worth their time,” the report says.
Some felt that way because they struggled to get time with their legislator and were often redirected to an aide.
Others said they simply do not have the time to dedicate to policymaking. Larger districts sometimes will hire staff to help monitor legislative issues and advocate on behalf of the district, an advantage smaller districts usually don’t have.
Superintendents were also less likely to participate in state politics if they were located a long distance from the capitol. The leaders of smaller districts said they felt like their opinions carried less weight than larger districts, and that often dissuaded them from spending too much time participating in political processes.
Another barrier to more participation was that superintendents sometimes simply did not feel knowledgeable enough about state processes or how to effectively engage. About two-thirds of respondents said their postsecondary education did not address state education policymaking. No interviewees said that they received formal training about policy or policy engagement, the report said.
Expanding access and education
White recommended that state governments continue to invest in, maintain, and expand virtual engagement options, like the ability to provide testimony at hearings via Zoom. The effort could go a long way in making district leaders in more rural parts of the state and who oversee smaller districts with limited staff feel better equipped to participate, White said. And most states already made the initial investment in the technology during the pandemic.
It could also be useful for state legislators who serve on education committees and state board of education members to travel to different parts of the state to conduct meetings and hearings with district leaders and the broader community, White wrote.
Leadership preparation programs and professional associations can also play a key role in preparing superintendents to engage in state politics, White said, so they should consider adding programs or trainings specifically on the topic. Those lessons should include best practices for establishing and maintaining relationships, and engaging state legislators in conversations, White said.
She also pointed to state-level superintendent associations as a potential tool for superintendents who struggle to find the bandwidth to participate in state policy processes. Those organizations can flag and explain important policies when they’re introduced and help district leaders filter out what’s not important. But White noted that lawmakers say they find more value in speaking directly with superintendents, rather than associations. The same form letters submitted by several people also generally resonate less with lawmakers, she said.
“I think the conversation about superintendents’ participation in state policymaking is not about just adding something to their plate,” White said. “We need to be approaching it from the angle of supporting and carving out time and resources that allow them to do that work.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2023 edition of Education Week as States Are Making a Flurry of School Policies. Why Aren’t Superintendents More Involved?