SUGGESTIONS FOR SCHOOL BOARD ADVOCACY ON ASVAB AND OPT-OUT POLICIES
By Pat Hanson with Jeanne Turner, Lynn Hamilton and Macgregor Eddy
Two Monterey County school districts successfully passed policies recently, requiring that recruiter release option 8 be applied district-wide when the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test is given to students. That option protects families from having students’ personal information -- including name, address, phone number and social security number -- sent to military recruiters. Salinas Union High School District (SUHSD) -- an area heavily targeted for military recruitment because of low academic achievement, high levels of poverty and ethnicity -- passed this policy in September 2008, and Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD) did the same in February 2009.
The MPUSD Board of Education is also currently working to alter the emergency contact card that parents must sign in order for students to be registered in district high schools. Three YES/NO check-boxes are being proposed in addition to two existing categories that require permission for a child to be interviewed or to be photographed for media purposes. These check-boxes would give or withhold permission for students’ personal information to be sent to military recruiters, institutions of higher education and/or prospective employers.
What steps did local peace and social justice activists take to accomplish this? What did they learn that could be useful in other communities? Below is a synthesis of the major lessons and suggestions they would make for other communities.
Sometimes clichés are true. “Do your research,” “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know that counts,” and “Befriend the secretaries and the custodians” -- these tactics actually work if you do careful relational organizing as part of your strategy.
Find activists who know the inside of school districts. In MPUSD, Jeanne Turner, a recently retired teacher, was the leading ASVAB policy change advocate. During her 37 years in the district, she’d known and even worked closely with some of the present board members, so she could predict who would be helpful or obstructive. Lynn Hamilton in Salinas was also retired with more than eight years of experience in the district and another ten years in a nearby district. Both were able to get critical information about the time, energy and money it could take to implement changes. Turner’s former school secretary provided critical information, as did the data entry person.
Understanding school board members' needs and concerns can help you achieve what you want. Remember, they are elected officials who volunteer for the often overwhelming amount of work they do for a variety of personal and political reasons.
Find the best spokespersons to approach specific board members.
Work through friendly teachers first. Even if principals may be allies in principle, they tend to be more cautious. Experienced teachers and former board members can suggest tips for reaching difficult board members and may know which ones to avoid.
Put yourself in the shoes of school counselors, administrators and superintendents. Remember, they’re just doing their job.
Get materials out early, especially when board members are not pressed with deadlines on other major issues. MPUSD letters and information packets went out in the slow time between Thanksgiving and the holiday season. This was done purposely, knowing that they would most likely be put aside and not read immediately, but could be referred to later. SUHSD materials were delivered to board members in mid-spring, with the target time for board meetings in June through August.
Don’t press for a specific date -- let the board determine the timeline. Choose the time allotted for testimony on non-agenda items as your first entry point. The MPUSD activists did not mention a specific date that they wanted their item to be placed on the agenda. They read a carefully constructed three-minute statement at the December 15 board meeting that reminded them of the packets they had received two weeks earlier.
Listen at board meetings first before deciding what to ask for and when. Observe and learn how to speak and get on the agenda. Jeanne Turner was the only advocate in the audience for the first meeting after she’d sent packets to the board. “When I looked at this (referring to the first proposed policy change) I thought, I have accomplished nothing! Silly me. I thought I had done such a great job of sending everything out with my November 14th letter, that the whole thing (policy) would be approved at once. I had no idea what this was going to entail. However, I did listen to the board discussion. That pointed me in the direction I had to go.”
It will take time for your message to make an impact. Be patient and persistent and commit to following through.
Devise strategies for specific impact. Have several speakers, each covering one aspect of your issue at each meeting you sign up for. If well rehearsed, they can provide a powerful, coherent presentation supporting your points.
Re-inform board members often and incrementally. Phone follow-up is best done by activists the board members know and can trust.
Schedule a meeting with the superintendent only after you are well prepared with anticipated arguments. Have specific, one-liner points of what you want, why, and how this will help him/her. Many superintendents worry that federal funding from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) will be suspended if ASVAB test results and/or personal student information are not sent to the military and institutions of higher education. They need be able to visualize, perhaps with an annotated copy of the NCLB law itself (such as MPUSD used), the provisions for opting out so they fully understand that this is not the case. (Note: “prospective employers” is not a category for receiving student contact information under NCLB, but many districts include it among opt-out categories.)
Be fully informed on legalities, including specific annotated copies of laws or board policies and referral numbers of an attorney for back-up. SUHSD advocates had an attorney that worked with them pro bono.
Make educational packets thorough and clear. Early in the process, present board members with paper copies explaining the NCLB opt-out requirements and options for the ASVAB. This lays the groundwork for discussion at future board meetings during which confusion is sure to take place and can then be addressed. MPUSD activists hand-delivered packets to the home address of each board member that included a personalized cover letter.
Right to privacy is THE essential talking point. Both conservatives and liberals think that providing anyone with social security numbers is dangerous. Conservatives are just fine with sending personal information to the military, but not social security numbers. As it turned out, the most convincing items in MPUSD’s packet were the actual student forms that were included, especially the first two pages of the ASVAB scantrons with columns soliciting students’ personal information and social security numbers.
Don’t in any way come across as anti-military. Your purpose is to make sure that privacy is protected and personal information is given only to those entities approved by the parents.
Be low profile. Go very low-key on publicity, especially at first. Avoid the media.
Hand-deliver packets of materials in person if possible -- if not, by first-class mail -- to board members’ home addresses. One-on-one contact is best, conducted by trusted, trained allies. Follow up with phone calls to make sure the materials were received.
Research policies and procedures used in other school districts, especially those nearby. Obtain materials used by them as examples. When working with the president of the board who happened to be on the policy sub-committee, concerns arose about the legality of separating the categories on the opt-out form. Before her appointment with the board president, Turner spent time calling school districts in California who already had their categories of options separated. By the time they met, she was able to hand the committee and the superintendent multiple copies of the opt-out forms being used in Whittier Union HSD, Santa Cruz City USD, Berkeley USD, Los Angeles Unified, Santa Rosa and the policy passed in nearby Salinas.
Evaluate and pick crucial entry and delivery points. Work with school board policy subcommittees first to obtain their clarity and perspective. Convincing them can make approval at vote time a slam dunk.
Carefully weigh options for getting information to parents that they are sure to see. The “blue jeans express” -- a term for when students deliver materials home -- is highly unreliable, and mailing is prohibitively expensive, especially right now with budget cuts. In proposing a method for notifying parents about the opt-out right, activists referred to the AB 2994 legislative model that was passed twice by the state assembly, but not signed into law by the governor. This bill, which would have mandated placing the opt-out information on emergency contact cards for each student, was referred to directly in MPUSD’s presentation to the board on December 15.
After the policy is passed, remember to follow up and check on implementation. When Jeanne Turner learned that her superintendent wondered exactly how schools could keep track of the various categories of opt out, she discovered (again from her data entry informant) that there is a section in the district data software system wherein this data can be recorded.
AND FINALLY . . . .
Remember: after the policy is passed, your work is not yet complete! There may need to be a high-level directive that designates someone to be responsible for posting this information. Suspecting that nobody at the high school level had been directed to enter opt-out data that is currently being returned by parents, Turner strongly doubted that anything was being done to keep pupil directory information from going to military recruiters, colleges or prospective employers. She checked with two high school secretaries. Indeed, one school had the opt-out slips that were returned, sitting in a drawer at the high school. Another sent them downtown but doesn't remember to whom!
Don’t take setbacks as a defeat. Remember that once school policy is passed, it can be revisited. Reapply these same principles and keep on keeping on.
The above article originally appeared in the April-June 2009 issue of Draft NOtices, published by Committee Opposed to Militarism & the Draft, www.comdsd.org.
Various documents and letters presented to the Monterrey Peninsula Unified School District are available at www.comdsd.org/Monterey.htm