NASA could learn from schools

In addition to the work that I do for political candidates and campaigns, I also have dozens of school-district clients.

Initially, I helped schools to pass bond referendums, but that has evolved into something larger, teaching me lessons that would benefit the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an organization struggling for public credibility.

In addition to the work that I do for political candidates and campaigns, I also have dozens of school-district clients.

Initially, I helped schools to pass bond referendums, but that has evolved into something larger, teaching me lessons that would benefit the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an organization struggling for public credibility.

The first lesson is that NASA must behave as if it is involved in a permanent campaign for approval. As in a parliamentary democracy, an election may be called at any time. The next election is always a month away.

The purpose of this permanent campaign is to build up a vast reservoir of goodwill that schools (or NASA) can draw upon when times are bad. Test scores are not always good. (Shuttle missions sometimes end in failure.) So some credits must be saved up for use in times of crisis.

Based on trial-and-error observation, I have come to believe that the size of a school’s reservoir of goodwill is more important than anything else whenever a school faces a referendum on a bond or mill levy. Many schools don’t recognize that, however, and will spend months agonizing over the details of a proposed bond issue. “Should we ask for $28 million or $31 million?” “Will voters prefer a new middle school or two new elementary schools?” They go back and forth.

I’ve learned that these details of a proposal influence maybe as few as 20 percent of voter choices. Most voter choice is controlled by the size of the reservoir of good feelings about the district, its teachers, administrators, facilities, students and accomplishments.

That came home to me once when moderating a focus group about a proposed new high school. One older woman remarked that she had seen students smoking at the mall. Then another told of a student she saw at the mall. This student had blue hair that frightened her about walking to her car.

None of that, of course, has anything to do with the construction of a new high school, but in their minds it did. If the people running the school can’t convince kids to stop smoking or frightening old ladies with blue hair, maybe we can’t trust them with the money to build a new school either.

How do schools fill that reservoir of goodwill? Mostly by their achievements. High test scores. State football championships. Science-fair ribbons. National teachers of the year. I also find that voters must know that the school has a vision and a plan for tackling the most pressing problems that the future will bring.

What does the reservoir look like in polls? I tell schools that they need to have the solid and unwavering approval of at least 60 percent of the voters in their district before they even begin thinking about putting any specific proposal before voters. Higher is better.

So how does NASA stack up? It appears that NASA’s reservoir is ebbing. A recent CBS News poll said 59 percent of Americans feel the space-shuttle program is worth continuing, much lower than recorded in prior surveys. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey taken late last month found that just 53 percent rate NASA’s job performance as excellent or good. Only 38 percent expressed a great deal of confidence that NASA could prevent another Columbia-style accident.

NASA is also struggling with accomplishment and vision. When your last “state championship” was a moon landing in 1969, you’re not filling your reservoir. When your latest shuttle commander envisions NASA as an escape pod for humans, then your reservoir isn’t being filled either. The Houston Chronicle quoted Col. Eileen Collins: “We need healthcare, Social Security and care for our old people, but if you think about the limited resources of the Earth and the growing population then we have to get off the planet.”

With numbers and vision like that, NASA better hope its next referendum is far into the future.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.