Published Online:

E.C.S. at 20: The Compact's Potential Is Still To Be Realized

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

"Some degree of order needs to be brought out of this chaos," wrote James B. Conant, the former President of Harvard University, in 1964, in reference to education policymaking in the nation.

"We cannot have a national educational policy," he added in his book, Shaping Education Policy, "but we might be able to evolve a nationwide policy." The solution, Mr. Conant concluded, was "a new venture in cooperative federalism," a compact among the states to create an organization to focus national attention on the pressing education issues of the day.

The following spring, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford Foundation awarded grants to Terry Sanford, who had recently left the governorship of North Carolina, to transform the Conant idea into reality. John W. Gardner was Carnegie's president at the time.

A preliminary draft of the compact was completed by July and endorsed by representatives from all 50 states and the territories in September. Within five months, 10 states had ratified the agreement, giving it legal status. Out of the compact was born the Education Commission of the States (ecs).

"We invented a little device to get the compact approved quickly," Mr. Sanford, now the president of Duke University, said recently. "We didn't need money from the legislatures, we had plenty of foundaContinued on Page X

Education Commission of the States:

Potential Is Still Unrealized

Continued from Page 1


tion funding, so we agreed that the governors could ratify it by executive order. It worked pretty well."

Promising Experiment

The compact and ecs "offer the most exciting promise of any educational experiment on the American scene," Mr. Sanford said at the commission's first meeting, in Chicago in 1966. Eighteen years later, many who are familiar with the organization agree, its potential remains undiminished.

In the wave of reform that has swept over American education in the past two years, to an unprecedented extent the advocates of change have been governors, state legislators, and members of state boards of education--groups that ecs counts among its primary constituents. The ferment in the state capitals has created an equally unprecedented need for ideas, information, and expertise--exactly the services the founders of ecs envisioned that it would offer.

Yet, in this "golden period of opportunity," as one ranking member of the organization described it, a cloud hangs over ecs The past several years have been marked by unsteady leadership, disruptive internal reorganizations, the departure of virtually all of the organization's senior staff members, severe budget cuts, low morale, and the loss of a major contract. The organization has been weakened to the point that many of its current staff members openly question the comprehensiveness of its work and its ability to make a significant contribution to the future development of education policy in the nation.

Nonetheless, ecs's new chairman, Gov. Charles S. Robb of Virginia, has expressed an intention to have the organization play a more active role in setting the national education agenda and is searching for a new executive director to carry out the task.

Lack of Direction

In 1980, Robert C. Andringa left his position as director of policy research for then-Gov. Albert H. Quie of Minnesota to replace Warren Hill as ecs's executive director. By most accounts, he inherited an organization plagued by inertia and lacking a sense of direction.

Many of ecs's 357 commissioners (there are seven from each of 48 states, the District of Columbia, and three territories; Nevada and Montana are not members) are said to have taken little interest in the organization's work.

"The California appointments were often just something for somebody who needed something in education," said Michael Kirst, former chairman of the California State Board of Education and a former member of ecs's executive committee.

The staff, characterized variously as "a loose confederation of fiefdoms" and "beltway bandits in the Rockies" worked on a wide range of projects that many say had little to do with the needs of ecs's 1,000 "primary constituents"--that is, governors and legislators, their aides, the ranking school and higher-education executives in the states, and members of state boards of education.

"There was enormous energy on people running around writing proposals on things such as health, alcohol, energy," said a senior staff member in an interview during a recent visit to the organization's Denver headquarters. Another added that "some of the projects were brought in just to keep people funded."

The federal government was the sponsor of many such projects, an unsettling fact to many members of ecs, who argued that funding--and thus the agenda--for an organization designed to serve state policymakers should not have been originating from the federal government.

In 1975, ecs received 84 percent of its revenues from federal sources, compared with 7.9 percent from state fees. For fiscal 1985, the state fees range from $24,100 to $72,200 and total $1.8 million.

The commission had trouble collecting dues from the states in the late 1970's and early 1980's, a period of fiscal austerity for many states, according to Peggy Green, the organization's director of commissioner relations. "We have never lost a state, totally," she said, adding that an improved economic climate and renewed national interest in education have made dues collection much easier this year.

Mandate for Change

Mr. Andringa, who prior to moving to Minnesota to work for Mr. Quie spent eight years in Congress on the minority staff of the House Education and Labor Committee, came to Denver with a mandate to address these conditions, to reduce the commission's dependency on federal funding, and to focus its agenda.

It is generally agreed that he succeeded. Helped, he acknowledges, by the drying up of categorical grants under the Reagan Administration and the emergence from the school-reform movement of a ready-made set of issues to study, he focused his staff's energies on the issues most pressing to state leaders--school finance, teacher compensation, and legal issues. And he worked at getting more governors involved in the organization.

"He was very successful at getting us to set priorities," said a former ecs staff member. "The organization is now focused on the reform movement and a half-dozen issues that surround it."

But that progress has been overshadowed by developments that have damaged both the effectiveness and the credibility of ecs, according to observers inside and outside the organization.

Lost Contract

A year ago, the organization lost a $4.9-million federal contract to sponsor the National Assessment of Educational Progress (naep), a closely followed national sampling of student achievement.

"It was a big body blow, financially and in terms of prestige," said a former member of ecs's executive committee.

Others were happy to see the assessment move to the Educational Testing Service in New Jersey. "The naep contract pulled ecs away from its state focus, inordinately," said Peter P. Smith, lieutenant governor of Vermont and a former member of ecs's exective committee.

Mr. Andringa claims that the organization has not suffered financially as a result of the loss of the contract, and other staff members say that because the "tail is no longer wagging the dog," ecs is better organized and more efficient.

Yet the commission's budget dropped from $8.5 million in fiscal 1982--when the naep contract accounted for 58 percent of the total budget--to $3.4 million in fiscal 1984. Moreover, the size of the commission's staff has dropped from 146 (81 of whom were not connected with naep) in September of 1981, to 52 today. A portion of the reduction in non-naep staff, according to ecs staff members, is attributable to the loss of federal categorical grants; but some of it is also traceable to the loss of administrative costs built into the naep contract and used to support other ecs activities.

Funding from foundations has also declined sharply in recent years, from $1.2 million in fiscal 1982 to $319,000 in fiscal 1984.

Senior Staff Members

ecs has also lost virtually all of its senior staff, several of whom are recognized nationally in their specialties. Said an educator who has worked closely with the commission: "The professional staff has just melted away."

Several of those who resigned from ecs attribute their decisions to leave to unhappiness over Mr. Andringa's management and the priorities he established for the commission.

"The management team for the first couple of years was a circus," said a staff member. "He was far too isolated from the staff. But I've seen great improvement in the last 18 months."

ecs has undergone two major reorganizations in the past four years. The first replaced divisions for higher and elementary/secondary education with centers focused on specific topics (finance and law, for example). The second reorganization re-established the original configuration.

"All he managed to do was anger everyone," said one of ecs's commissioners.

"His view did not include having senior staff to do analytical work," said a former staff member. "Instead, it was to have nameless staff serving the governors and others the way staff serves in Congress. Twelve months ago, the word was out that good people do not go to ecs They tried to recruit a senior person in higher education and couldn't do it."

"My goal was to create a credible organization to help as many leaders as possible do their jobs better," said Mr. Andringa. "It was a a servant-leader kind of approach."

In an attempt to compensate for the loss of senior staff, and to save money and give the commission greater flexibility in staffing, ecs has begun to establish a network of policy experts that it can call on from time to time.

There is some skepticism of the plan. "They need well-respected experts to network others," said a former senior staff member. "But they are down to one or two or three who can do it. They are below the critical mass in staffing."

The staff cuts and reorganizations have damaged morale within the organization, according to staff members, one of whom described last year within the commission as "wrenching." Said Mr. Andringa:el10l"Morale problems came about in part because I thought I could change the organization faster than was possible." He and some other staff members say morale at e.cs has improved recently.

Unfulfilled Obligations

Many ecs constituents say they use the commission as a resource and that they are pleased with the quality of its work. But staff members say the recent developments within the organization have made it increasingly difficult for ecs to fulfill its obligations. In many cases, they say, it is not doing so.

The commission supports a variety of projects: It sponsors forums for policymakers, conducts research, produces several publications, fosters cooperation among different levels of government and between policymakers and educators, and offers "technical assistance" to states developing new programs or legislation.

Among the most widely known and heavily relied upon of the commission's functions is its information clearinghouse. It is widely quoted in the media nationwide as a source of education statistics; last year, it answered 3,500 requests for information.

Yet, according to ecs staff members, "there have been substantial cutbacks in the clearinghouse since the loss of the naep contract" and its "databases have not been kept up."

There have also been cutbacks in ecs's highly regarded policy-analysis programs. Its school-finance "center," for example, now has only one full-time staff member.

"Productivity is down," said one of the few remaining senior staff members in the policy office. "We are not able to do as much."

"In many cases we are responding," said another, "but we are not providing nearly as much advice as we could or should."

Staff members have helped shape reform legislation in several states in the past several years, usually under contract. A $600,000, school-finance project in New York between 1978 and 1981 was the largest such project. Current and former staff members doubt whether such an effort could be mounted today.

Concluded Donald Burns, who heads the elementary and secondary division: "We've been able to cope reasonably well, but there are a number of issues that, frankly, we will have to say no to or at least postpone."

'Stir Up Trouble'

Mr. Sanford said in his 1966 address that ecs "must stir up trouble and make the body politic begin to itch. It must be unafraid. It must be a blue-printer and architect."

Now, however, while ecs is praised for its unique ability to open lines of communication among different types of policymakers and to a lesser extent between policymakers and educators, many members of the commission say it has failed in recent years to meet Mr. Sanford's charge, that it has not been bold enough in drawing attention to the pressing issues in American education.

"The record has not been encouraging as a forum to define the larger questions and keep them effectively on the national agenda," said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

"We need to generate the agenda, rather than react to it," added Wilhemina Delco, a new member of ecs's executive committee and chairman of the higher education committee in the Texas House of Representatives.

According to Mr. Andringa, who will remain at ecs for a year as a Conant Fellow after his replacement is named, the nature of the commission makes agenda-setting and leadership difficult.

A new chairman is appointed each year, necessarily a governor (one year it is a Democrat, the next a Republican), who in turn appoints the majority of a 10-person executive committee, the group that effectively operates as a board of directors, Mr. Andringa said.

"It's very difficult, given the roller-coaster cast of characters, for enough of them to have a historical perspective," he said. "There is very little continuity."

There are 100 new members on the commission this year, out of a total of 357.

"Moreover," Mr. Andringa said, "it is extremely difficult to find positions to agree on in an organization that represents as many points of view and interests as we do."

He said that he was asked in 1982 by the executive committee to exclude his views from his speeches. "Since then, most of my addresses have been descriptive, about trends, ideas, or information," he said.

Said a former staff member of Mr. Andringa's choice to de-emphasize the commission's role as an agenda-setter: "Providing leadership was considered to be outside of the mission of ecs" A staff member of a key Congressional education committee said the commission's contribution to developments on Capitol Hill has been minimal.

Changing Role

But since the establishment under Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of the commission's Task Force on Education for Economic Growth two years ago, ecs's role has begun to change.

The task force's report, "Action for Excellence," joined "A Nation at Risk" and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's High School as principal voices in the chorus of reform.

It gained Governor Hunt and several other "education governors" who were linked to ecs wide national publicity, and, in making a series of specific reform recommendations, thrust ecs into the policymaking arena.

The increased visibility of the commission and the momentum building behind state reform initiatives breathed new life into the organization, according to staff members. But it also created an internal tension, they say.

"The governors started to put the organization in a leadership role, so we started getting mixed signals from them and Bob Andringa," said a former staff member. "One thing is for sure, Bob never would have created the task force."

"Until the last two years, we did not perceive ourselves to be in the competition for being on page one of The New York Times or on the network news," Mr. Andringa said.

Governor Robb, the new ecs chairman, has signaled his intention to expand the visibility of the Continued on Following Page Continued from Preceding Page


commission even further and to have it play a prominent role in setting the national agenda in education.

"ecs is not meeting its entire charge; it is not a forum for discussing cutting-edge issues; rather, it has played a ministerial function, collecting and disseminating information," he said. "The policy function in education is shifting away from the federal government, so there is a greater need for strong state leadership in education."

--"There is also an increased awareness of the policy implications of political action by state legislators and governors," added John Casteen III, Governor Robb's education advisor.

The Governor asked for and received Mr. Andringa's resignation immediately after assuming the chairmanship of ecs in August. He has initiated a search for a successor who, he said in a recent interview, "is a recognized national stateman, someone who can provide the status to maintain visibility and provide leadership at the state level."

Among those reportedly being considered for the position, which is expected to carry the new title of president, are several college presidents, governors, foundation presidents, and congressmen.

Governor Robb has also initiated a major re-evaluation of ecs's goals and programs, to be completed by next August. "We're taking a good look at the compact and the marching orders from Terry Sanford," he said, "Does the organization conform to them? Should it?" Committees will consider the governance, funding, and staffing of the commission.

Further, Mr. Robb has expressed his intention to have business leaders play an active role in the affairs of the commission. He said he plans to establish a business-education advisory group as a way of formalizing ecs's relationship with the business world.

"It is essential," said Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, ecs's chairman-elect, "that we build more and more sectors into the development of education policy."

But Governor Robb will have to reconcile his ambitious goals for ecs with the organization's current condition.

"For one thing," said a former senior ecs staff member, "the states are going to have to come up with a lot more money if they want the commission to be a national force. You cannot have that kind of organization with such a small staff. You need to be more and do more."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented