The Principal and Political Influence

Guest post by Jay R. Masterson

The saying “all politics is local” has special relevance when it comes to K–12 education policy. Communities care deeply about how their children are educated. Everyone wants great outcomes but there are always differences of opinion about how to get there. Too often decisions are made without input from the individuals best positioned to inform these choices—principals.

Principals are at the crossroads of policy and practice, making them the ideal advocates for strong schools and sound educational policy. Principals are responsible for ensuring that all local policies and state and federal laws surrounding education are implemented to the fullest extent. Principals also work on behalf of many constituents, including students and families, staff and district leadership, school boards, and departments of education. Most important, principals know the difference between policies that advance 21st-century learning, equipping students with skills for today’s global economy and ones that date back to the 19th-century factory model. 

So, what is keeping principals’ voices from being heard in the public policymaking process? In some cases, it may be principals themselves. Some may worry that elected officials could penalize them for sharing alternative views. Others may not realize that their ideas are needed and wanted for consideration. And most probably find it difficult to make the time necessary to engage in politics when they are responsible for running everything inside the building.

Despite the natural obstacles to participation, all principals should consider how they may engage in the political process and influence policy for their students and education as a whole. After all, who knows the rules of the game more than the principal? When change is necessary, principals have a responsibility to shape the discussion in a positive way and be a strong voice at the table, at the local, state, and federal levels and within professional organizations.

I have learned that decision-makers respect our opinions. We can advise them on the impact of their decisions and what implementation would look like. A simple phone call or email can start a conversation that leads to better educational policy and outcomes for the entire community.

How can you as principal start to advocate for your school and educational policies? What holds you back from engaging in politics?  

Jay Masterson, EdD, is the principal of Joseph L. McCourt Middle School in Cumberland, RI, and a middle school administrator. An active part of the political process, he assists the local school committee in writing policies and advocates for positive educational change with his elected officials at the state and federal levels. He is the 2016 Rhode Island Principal of the Year.  


  • Michael Thomas says:

    Great post, Jay. You are right that principals need to speak up and get political, whether they like it or not. I think that school leaders are reluctant to participate because they dislike drama and conflicts that are often associated with politics. But getting involved in politics does not have to be wrought with anxiety. Like you said, it starts with a phone call or email to get a conversation started. How long have you been involved in school politics and how did you get started in educational policy issues?

    • Jay Masterson says:

      Hi Michael. I got started about 8 years ago when I became an assistant principal. We had sub-committees at our state association and I volunteered to help with it. The focus was on state legislation so I monitored proposed bills. When I would ask about the bills, I found that elected officials liked to talk about the bills they were putting forward and the potential consequences of their implementation. The made changes based on our feedback. It was then that I realized that principal’s could influence the process in a positive way.

      For educational policy issues, I started attending our local school committee policy sub-committee meetings. Just by being there, the school committee would ask me questions and for my input and then I became a regular at the meetings advising on all policies associated with schools and safety. Just by being present, you influence the process in a positive way because you are always an advocate for what’s best about schools.

  • Monika Rivera says:

    Hey Dr. Masterson,

    Your post came up as I was researching information on leadership and public policy. Maybe you could help me… I’m trying to understand why it’s important for leaders to study public policy and understand its processes… and how public policy impacts the operation of an organization?

    I liked the point you made about principals becoming advocates and being able to influence the process in a positive way. So principals don’t necessarily have a say on public policy? What is the process that needs to occur in order to implement any public policies that impact education?

    Thank you!!
    Monika Rivera
    (Ed.D. grad student)

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