Education Summit's 'When' and 'Where' Are Set, But the 'Why' Remains Unsettled
Washington--Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt convened the governors for economic-recovery talks in the midst of the Great Depression have the White House and the state houses joined forces for a summit examining one pressing issue.
But on Sept. 27 and 28 in Charlottesville, Va., the nation's chief state executives will meet with the President to discuss school reform.
And thus far, though the pace of pre-summit planning has been brisk, both the meeting's agenda and its prospects for substantive results remain unclear.
"I don't think the summit will be productive if it becomes a forum for each governor to report on his or her education initia6tives," Gov. Richard F. Celeste of Ohio warned.
Others have expressed fears that what should be a time for consensus-building could, without a focused plan for discussion, become merely an elaborate media event.
In many parts of the country, activity aimed at ensuring that does not happen has been under way since President Bush extended his summit invitation July 31 at the annual meeting of the National Governors' Association in Chicago. For example:
Gov. Michael N. Castle of Delaware and Gov. George Mikelson of South Dakota have scheduled statewide "summits" with educators, business representatives, and private citizens.
The West Virginia Federation of Teachers has begun surveying teachers and the general public on their top reform priorities, and plans to present the results to Gov. Gaston Caperton before he leaves for the summit.
National education associations have been disseminating suggested items for summit discussion and encouraging their state and local members to get in touch with their governors and do the same.
"We've spent the whole month of August working on this," said Edward R. Kealy, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association.
"If any recommendations that come out of this summit are to be implemented, then it makes sense for Mr. Bush and the governors to bring in those of us who will do the implementing in the beginning," he said.
The President, for his part, will hold two or three meetings with representatives from education groups and elected officials early this month to prepare for the summit.
The gathering of top governmental officials will fulfill a pledge Mr. Bush made during the presidential campaign.
It will also represent only the third such policy meeting ever called by a U.S. President. In addition to F.D.R.'s Depression-era talks, Theodore Roosevelt held a White House-governors' summit on conservation measures in 1908.
While the idea of an education summit has been favorably received, a consensus on what it should--or will be able to--accomplish has not been reached.
Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, a Democrat known for his education initiatives, said that simply holding discussions with the President was not enough.
He and several other governors envision the summit as an opportunity for Mr. Bush to articulate a clearer federal education policy.
"A lot of what President Bush has said so far about education relates more to what we are supposed to do, instead of what he is supposed to do," Mr. Clinton said in an interview.
Added Governor Celeste, who is also a Democrat, "We need a more compelling vision from President Bush as to where the federal government can make a difference."
Others suggested that the summit might also provide an opportunity for the President to pledge more federal dollars for education causes.
Gov. Buddy Roemer of Louisiana, a Democrat battling entrenched financial problems in his state, personally lobbied the President at this summer's n.g.a. meeting to include literacy issues on the summit's4agenda. He ended his plea with, "What I'm trying to say, Mr. President, is send money."
Governor Celeste suggested that, even though federal resources are tight, President Bush might soften his "no new taxes" refrain. It is a stance, the Ohio chief executive said, that has had "unintended consequences" at the state and local levels.
"I hope he can come up with a new line for the 90's that would more clearly help state and local officials raise the necessary resources for education reform," Mr. Celeste said.
Many Republican governors, however, see the summit as more appropriately focused on specific reform issues, not federal spending.
"If the President wants to be the 'education President,' then our view is simply that we need to work together," said Gov. Garrey E. Carruthers of New Mexico, a Republican and the current chairman of the Education Commission of the States.
"Not all our ideas cost money, but we sure could use the bully pulpit of the Presidency to promote our efforts," he said.
In his address to the governors at the nga's Chicago meeting, President Bush offered little insight into what he expects from the summit, other than the opportunity to "share ideas and to explore options for educational progress."
"Together, we can find ways to strengthen our schools, to enlarge opportunities, and to improve our nation's educational performance," he said.
Since that appearance, numerous conference calls and meetings have connected the staffs of the lead governors in the endeavor, officials of the Education Department and the n.g.a., and White House domestic-policy advisers.
Mr. Clinton, Gov. Carroll A. Campbell of South Carolina, and Terry Branstad, the Republican Governor of Iowa and newly-elected chairman of the n.g.a., are spearheading the effort for the governors.
Roger Porter, Mr. Bush's chief domestic-policy adviser, is coordinating the White House's efforts with the aid of Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos.
Summit planners have not yet revealed what issues will be included on the agenda. But some likely topics, suggested by the governors during their meeting and in interviews, include minority access to higher education, accountability and learning outcomes, parental choice and involvement, community service, adult and workforce literacy issues, early-childhood education, and collaboration among government and private agencies serving children.
Several governors see the summit's mission as helping to pave the way for a national school-reform agenda.
Gov. Guy Hunt of Alabama, a Republican, said the meeting should produce "a national policy that will help us overcome education professionals in the community that have their heads in the sand."
Governor Branstad spoke of "developing consensus goals" and "collectively fashioning policy" when speaking about the summit and a special n.g.a. task force on education he has appointed for the coming year. Govs. Campbell and Clinton will serve as co-chairmen of the task force.
But while the agenda has not been disclosed, the meeting's structure is beginning to take shape.
It will consist largely of closed-door, roundtable meetings between governors and Cabinet members, according to Michael Cohen, the nga's associate program director for education.
The first session will be convened at 3 P.M. on Wednesday, Sept. 27, with the final session concluding by 3 P.M. the following day.
Mahlon Anderson, an Education Department spokesman, said President Bush is tentatively scheduled to give a major address on Sept. 28.
Still, some in the governors' ranks and in the education community have questioned whether public relations will override substantive results.
Mr. Celeste said the meeting should result in an agreed-to agenda of next steps, and not be a mere "photo opportunity." He also suggested that President Bush let the governors know before the meeting what his expectations for it are.
Planners cited the perception that the summit would primarily be a media event as one reason they are considering closing sessions to the press and the public. "We want an atmosphere where governors, Cabinet members, and the President can hold frank discussions," Mr. Cohen of the n.g.a. said.
But Gary Marx, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, disagreed with the strategy of closing out the press from a meeting already excluding educators.
"Educators, governors, and thoughtful American citizens need to observe and determine for themselves if this is a substantial meeting to help local educators or whether it is window dressing," he said.
Governor Campbell's spokesman, Tucker Eskew, responded that everyone involved in planning the summit views it as a working meeting.
"I don't think anyone views this summit as the be all and the end all of education-reform efforts," he added. "We are counting on the meeting being a step of magnitude, but not a final step."