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Citing Politics, 2 States Pull Out Of Chiefs' Group

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Two states are pulling out of a leading national education group in the most visible sign yet of the political tensions rippling through many policymaking organizations since the 1994 elections.

The top education officials in Georgia and Pennsylvania have announced that neither state will renew membership in the Council of Chief State School Officers, a lobbying and support group for state schools superintendents.

Linda Schrenko, Georgia's Republican schools chief, and Eugene W. Hickok, the education secretary to Republican Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, said political differences with the group led to their decisions. The CCSSO this year has lobbied actively against cuts in federal education programs proposed by the GOP, which now controls both chambers of the U.S. Congress for the first time in 40 years.

"There's no way that the people of Georgia want to pay for a group that's lobbying against eight of their 11 members in Congress," Ms. Schrenko said in an interview this summer, referring to the state's GOP-majority delegation in the U.S. House.

A New Education Coalition?

Ms. Schrenko and Mr. Hickok are among the state education leaders discussing the creation of a new education coalition. They met with officials from Arizona, New Hampshire, and Virginia in Burlington, Vt., in July during the National Governors' Association meeting.

At that time, Ms. Schrenko said she planned to cancel her state's membership in the CCSSO. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

Lisa Graham, the Arizona schools chief, and a representative for Frank Brogan, the Florida education commissioner, were at that meeting; their spokesmen said last week that they had reached no decision about leaving the CCSSO.

"We're looking at the dollars involved and the philosophical differences that we have with the organization," said Brewser Brown, the communications director for the Florida education department.

Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the state chiefs' council, said that as of last week only Ms. Schrenko had notified him of her withdrawal. Georgia's pullout from the council is the first in the history of the group, he said.

New Politics of Education

The willingness of some chiefs to quit the CCSSO reflects the increasing intrusion of politics on education, said Michael Usdan, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership. Education policy was once decided by educators, he said, but today, business executives, governors, and other political powers control many of the policy levers for schools.

"It's the secularization of education," Mr. Usdan said. "Education is being pulled into the general stream of policymaking."

That trend has only accelerated with the turnover produced by the 1994 elections, he said. "Ideological cleavages are so profound that they are reverberating through all the state and national organizations."

Other veteran education policymakers agreed. Some state superintendents today are much more steeped in politics than the career educators who traditionally have held that job, said Herbert Grover, a former Wisconsin state superintendent.

"They are captives of their political party, or they are captives of the governor who appointed them," Mr. Grover said.

Some of the new officials reject the notion that they are part of a new politicization of education. Instead, they argue that the traditional education-policy groups are a poor forum for those who want to shake up the education system and foster bottom-up reform.

Sean Duffy, the spokesman for Mr. Hickok, said the Pennsylvania secretary attended a CCSSO meeting this summer and was alarmed that "if a parent or a teacher had walked into the meeting, they would have not understood anything that was said because of all the jargon and 'eduspeak."'

Woes Under 'Big Tent'?

Changes in the memberships of several bipartisan policy groups as a result of the 1994 elections, which saw big Republican gains at the state level as well as in Congress, have made their traditional "big tent" approach more difficult.

"Since the fall elections, I hear board members talking about their constituencies and 'the party line' far more than I've heard in the 12 years since I've been here," said Brenda L. Welburn, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. "They give us the opportunity to give a sense of the other side of the issue, but in some cases, it's very difficult. They are very much political animals."

Whether or not the tensions within traditional policy groups are a catalyst, new organizations may spring up to serve the new education leaders. Ms. Schrenko and Mr. Hickok have raised this possibility, and some state officials who met in Vermont said there are plans to announce a new education alliance this month.

Regardless, when the GOP picked up 480 seats in statehouses last year, it helped pump up the profile and influence of at least one organization that until this year had little clout. Membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington-based group of state lawmakers that promotes free-market approaches to policy, has soared.

The number of ALEC members has climbed by about 400--to 2,900--since 1994. Nearly 1,000 pieces of legislation based on ALEC models were introduced in states this year, and almost a quarter of those were enacted in what ALEC officials say was its most successful year in the group's 22-year-history.

In North Carolina and Washington state, newly elected Republicans cited ALEC classroom-expenditure data when they campaigned for office and when they successfully passed legislation to redirect state funds to the classroom.

Although it is a bipartisan group, ALEC aggressively promotes its agenda of market-based school reforms. The National Conference of State Legislatures, the traditional policy and service arm of the 50 state legislatures, adopts a more neutral stance.

Still, the NCSL had a reputation as a liberal group for many years, said Julie Bell, the organization's education program director, and that may explain why some new lawmakers are turning to ALEC.

"It was a bum rap," she said, "but we've run into it often."

Exaggerated Differences

Some officials in the policy organizations say the degree of partisanship over education issues can be exaggerated.

Ms. Bell said the ideological gulf in legislatures on education issues--particularly on the development of academic standards--is much less than on other issues.

Mr. Ambach of the CCSSO also noted that several of the new Republican chiefs use their membership in the group to exchange views with their colleagues. A spokeswoman for Idaho Superintendent Anne Fox, a Republican, said that Ms. Fox wants to retain her membership with the group because it gives her a national forum for her views.

Members of the csso have not always seen eye to eye on issues, Mr. Ambach said.

The biggest difference now, he said, is that some people have decided that "it's better to separate themselves and advocate for their issues from outside the organization."

Still, officials at many organizations said they cannot ignore the changes brought about by last year's elections.

"Given the sweep of the changes that happened in 1994," said Mark Weston, the state-services coordinator for the Education Commission of the States, a 30-year-old clearinghouse on education policy based in Denver, "it's important that organizations do some soul-searching and make some changes."

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