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Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as Alternative Group For Education Leaders Expanding

Alternative Group For Education Leaders Expanding

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If the school activists gathered here needed a reminder of why they came, The New York Times supplied one.

"Academic Standards Eased as Fear of Failure Spreads" trumpeted the newspaper Dec. 3, the day that five state schools chiefs kicked off the fourth annual meeting of the Education Leaders Council. The event drew about 250 mostly conservative-minded school leaders to Orlando for two days of brain-picking and loin-girding at what many of them viewed as a critical juncture for academic standards and school choice.

"We are now getting to crunch time in the states," warned William J. Moloney, Colorado's commissioner of education. Bad results on tests to measure student progress toward academic standards "are absolutely hateful to the educational establishment because they rip the mask off bad schools," he said.

William J. Moloney

"This is about staying the course," he told the audience.

Mr. Moloney dropped his membership in the Council of Chief State School Officers this past August to join the ELC, which, he said, better represents the views of Colorado education officials. Both groups have their headquarters in Washington.

The ELC was formed in 1995 as an alternative to the CCSSO, the main group representing state superintendents and commissioners of education. The ELC's founders—11 state education officials, including five chiefs—said they dissented from much of the "education establishment," with what they viewed as its flawed emphasis on spending increases, regulation, and complex federal programs. They charged that mainline education groups served those who ran the system better than the children and families who depend on it.

Broader Membership

Since its founding, the group, which is nonpartisan but has a decidedly Republican cast at the top, has drawn two new chiefs—Mr. Moloney and Arthur T. Ellis of Michigan. The other five states represented by top officials are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Three of the ELC chiefs are elected Republicans: Lisa Graham Keegan of Arizona, Linda C. Schrenko of Georgia, and Tom Gallagher of Florida. Two others—Eugene W. Hickok of Pennsylvania and Wilbert Bryant of Virginia—are secretaries of education appointed by Republican governors. An elected state school board named Mr. Ellis to the top job.

The breakaway group also includes individual state school board members and the entire boards of Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, and Virginia. Altogether, some 60 local school board members, legislators, administrators, parents, teachers, and community leaders in about 30 states have joined the organization, which collects dues ranging from $30,000 for a state education department and its executive to $50 for a state school board member.

Mr. Hickok, the chairman, said the ELC was poised to broaden its membership, though higher numbers were not necessarily the point. "We have found that people involved at the grassroots level need to recognize they are not by themselves,'' he said. "They are looking for networking and a level of comfort."

Finding Allies

Ben L. Alexander, a member of the Colorado state board and a former state senator, agreed. "It's really important to network like this to stay on course," he said. "And it's good to see this effort is as widespread as it is; you work in a state, and you think you are the only ones."

Mr. Alexander, a Republican, said that the ELC seemed to reflect his board's single-minded focus on student performance better than the National School Boards Association, which represents school boards nationally. He and other Colorado board members belong to both groups, he said.

Another conference-goer, the president of a company that runs charter schools for troubled and disruptive students, said he felt as if he belonged here. "Usually in groups of educators, I feel like an outsider," said John Hall of Options for Youth Inc. of Pasadena, Calif.

Mr. Hall had spent some of Saturday's lunchtime chatting with Frank Y.H. Wang, the president of the Norman, Okla.-based Saxon Publishers Inc., which produces mathematics and reading textbooks heavy on fundamentals and practice.

Speaking for many at the conference, Mr. Hall, a former public school teacher, said he had grown disenchanted with the education system. "We need to have standards and be on the same page.'

Conference-goers heard from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush about his state's accountability system, and from experts on student assessment, accountability, teachers, charter schools, and battles over federal education dollars.

Rebel With a Cause

In more informal moments, the attendees traded strategies and war stories. They also applauded the third winner of the group's "Rebel With a Cause" award: T. Willard Fair, the longtime president of the Urban League of Greater Miami.

Mr. Fair, who launched a campaign to improve 55 schools in the poor and predominantly black Liberty City area of Miami, said he makes no apologies for putting God and morality at the center of his school efforts, nor does he use race as an excuse for the lack of achievement among black studentswhich brought smiles and nods from the audience.

But he also stressed that along with high academic standards applicable to all students must come recognition of the special needs of children who live in a community marked by apathy and despair.

Vol. 19, Issue 16, Pages 19,22

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