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Ariz. Chief Puts Name and Face Front and Center

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Lisa Graham Keegans face rolls into focus on the Arizona education departments home page on the World Wide Web. The agencys chief policy document is the "Lisa Graham Keegan Plan for Education in Arizona." And barely three months into her job as state schools superintendent, Ms. Keegan called reporters in for a briefing on the accomplishments of her first 100 days.

"That's Lisa," said B. Kay Lybeck, the president of the 30,000-member Arizona Education Association, with a wry smile. "Her name, her face, and her comment are all the same thing. She doesn't just put things out into the ether. Her name and face will be on it--she's very good at that."

The pushing and positioning have made Ms. Keegan, a former Republican state legislator, a familiar presence here in Arizona. The Phoenix Gazette newspaper tagged her in May as the Republicans' strongest candidate for governor in 1998. After Ms. Keegan's election as state chief in 1994, political observers agree that she's got "good numbers"--high name-recognition and approval ratings among voters in this bedrock conservative state.

But she has not stopped at the state line. She has advocated her conservative brand of school reform from Washington state to Massachusetts. Her name is on a friend-of-the-court brief in the school-voucher case in Cleveland. Ms. Keegan helped create the Education Leaders Council, a year-old group of conservative-minded state school officials. And she has garnered mention in The Wall Street Journal and Forbes magazine.

Some people have criticized the Arizona schools chief as being more about self-promotion than substance, but she appears driven to prove them wrong.

Political Pedigree

Stopped at a traffic light outside the education department offices here on a recent day, Ms. Keegan taps the steering wheel of her Ford Explorer.

"Come on," she mutters. "Go, go, go." She pulls out just before the light turns green.

On her way to a meeting at the mayor's office, she glances at figures explaining impact fees for new homes. She "fluffs," running a brush through her hair as her aides in the back seat laugh.

At a meeting on standards and assessment at the Madison elementary school district in Phoenix, she arrives, as usual, with no prepared remarks and no briefcase. After quick introductions, she addresses the teachers by name. She talks in terms of "us" and "we" and disarms her somewhat less than enthusiastic audience almost immediately with self-deprecating humor.

While some may disagree with Ms. Keegan's efforts to push private school vouchers and expand charter schools, fans and critics alike agree that the 37-year-old, Stanford-educated speech pathologist is an intelligent, articulate, and savvy politician.

Her ancestors include a pioneer Republican governor of Nebraska and a Democratic U.S. senator from the Cornhusker State. She met her husband, a civil engineer, while they were both Arizona legislators. She nursed her infant daughter Annie, now 4, from the hall of the state Capitol, shouting her votes to the House floor.

In 1991, when she entered the legislature, Ms. Keegan was one of a slew of fresh-faced Republicans bent on change. She assumed a high profile almost immediately, serving on an ethics panel during "AzScam," a sting campaign that uncovered legislative corruption. She served as the vice chairwoman of the House education committee her first term, chairwoman in her second. A self-described "control freak," she says she ran for the $54,600-a-year state superintendent's post to implement reforms like charter schools that she helped shepherd through the legislature.

For all Ms. Keegan's advocacy of alternatives to traditional public schools, it is not a private school--nor a charter school--that she has chosen for her 7-year-old son, Justin. He attends the well-to-do Scottsdale public schools, which also claim Ms. Keegan as an alumna. She likes that the principal of her son's school courts students from outside the district's boundaries under the state's open-enrollment rules.

"I want to be wooed by 10 schools to have the privilege of educating Annie. As a mom, that's what I want," she said.

The Voucher Queen

After two terms in the state House, Ms. Keegan was dubbed the voucher queen--an image she now says she wants to shed, or at least diversify. While vouchers are dead for now in Arizona, she is still very much involved in school-choice issues.

Her conservative stands have never won her much support from the state's education establishment. She has rankled some by downsizing and reorganizing the education department, rolling back the state assessment program put in place by her predecessor, and moving--too quickly, the charge goes--to rewrite the state's academic standards for students.

"I am not warmly received when I walk into a room of educators, often, because of what they've heard about me," Ms. Keegan said. "The view is I'm political, I don't know the issues, and I'm some 'spooky' figure."

It is hard to know exactly what to make of Ms. Keegan, beyond acknowledging that she is noticeable. As home to what is perhaps the nation's most freewheeling charter school law, Arizona is being closely watched and its experiment has produced mixed results, said Joe Nathan, a well-known charter school advocate and the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Still, he and other observers do not regard Ms. Keegan as a key leader in the academic circles where charter school ideas are pondered.

On another contentious issue, Ms. Keegan has come out with innovative plans to revamp Arizona's school-finance system but has had trouble getting lawmakers to adopt them.

"You can't just write her off as an ideologue," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, the Washington group that has provided a home for the fledgling Education Leaders Council.

Ms. Keegan's performance in the finance debate has won her some credibility among Arizona educators. She has faced off against many of her fellow Republicans--including Gov. Fife Symington--in pushing for school-finance equity two years after the state supreme court ruled Arizona's school-funding system unconstitutional.

She helped coax her former legislative colleagues to take at least preliminary action--in the form of a $100 million fund--to lessen the wide gaps in facilities funding between rich and poor school districts. And she's still pushing.

Ms. Keegan shrugs off criticism that most of her energy is directed at options beyond the traditional public school system she was elected to direct.

"I do not see this as an either-or proposition," she said. "Some may say I'm schizophrenic, but my philosophy is very consistent: equity and access for all--a fairly populist approach."

The state's job, in her view, is to encourage parents to demand information about their schools, to be well-educated consumers in a free market education system where only the strong schools survive. Ms. Keegan eschews education jargon for a language understandable to the public while she remains a political and policy insider.

'Persuasive' Voice

When Seattle parents Jim and Fawn Spady needed help in their quest to make charter schools a reality in Washington state, they called Arizona. Their proposal managed only to clear the Republican-dominated House this year--a victory the Spadys credit Ms. Keegan's Olympia appearance with clinching.

"She solidified the support," Mr. Spady said. "She took people who were on the fence and put them strongly in our column. She's a very persuasive, powerful speaker. She showed our legislators that you can take on the [teachers'] union and win politically."

Ms. Keegan says that while most of her time is spent on the details of overseeing Arizona's traditional public schools, what makes headlines are charter schools and vouchers. So does her sparring with Gov. Symington.

While taking on the governor these days is not much of a political risk--he has been indicted on 23 charges by a federal grand jury for alleged official misconduct--many Arizona observers say Ms. Keegan has been wise to distance herself from him.

Choosing Her Forum

She clearly does not have a problem bucking national education leaders either.

The Education Leaders Council, which she helped found last year, is intended to fill a void Ms. Keegan and the other members--including schools chiefs from Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia--contend is left by traditional groups like the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The Arizona chief has been conspicuously absent from events sponsored by the CCSSO, such as its annual meeting last fall in Wheeling, W. Va. While the CCSSO considers Arizona a member, the state has not paid dues for 1996 or 1997.

"She's made her choices in terms of which audience she wants to influence, and it's not 95 percent of her peers," said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Washington-based CCSSO. "So what is stature and influence? I'm aware of none. ... Here come all the chiefs to West Virginia to talk about charters and Arizona's not there. What does that say?"

There is still curiosity, "if not fear," said Ms. Lybeck of the Arizona teachers' union, about what Ms. Keegan's tenure ultimately will mean for teachers and schools. There is still great concern that some of the state's 107 charter schools are running without true accountability or scrutiny. And there is much speculation about where Ms. Keegan is headed.

She says she plans to seek a second term, though others might imagine more.

Days after the Republican National Convention in San Diego, a former colleague met with Ms. Keegan about the upcoming legislative session. She mentioned that people at her house watching a keynote speech by Rep. Susan V. Molinari, R-N.Y., saw shades of Ms. Keegan.

She paused and then grinned.

"I like that. She looks like the kind of person who'd be fun to smoke cigars with," Ms. Keegan said.

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