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Education Leaders Council Undergoing Major Changes

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The Education Leaders Council, which has been grappling with financial and leadership problems for months, is merging with another Washington-based nonprofit organization.

Lisa Graham Keegan, the chief executive officer, is stepping down next week. Theodor Rebarber, the president of AccountabilityWorks, will replace her. The council's board of directors approved the merger between the ELC and Mr. Rebarber's organization on Sept. 23.

The decision to merge the organizations capped a tumultuous few weeks, in which three of the ELC's nine employees left the organization and it was forced to postpone its national conference, which had been set for October in Orlando, Fla. Ms. Keegan blamed the delay on the recent Florida hurricanes, which threatened to keep many Floridians from attending. The conference, an important fund-raiser for the ELC, will be held in December, she said.

The new organization, which likely will keep the ELC name, will now manage the Following the Leaders project, which has received $23.5 million in federal grants. The project is a package of tools to help states and school districts meet the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

AccountabilityWorks has a contract with the ELC to work on Following the Leaders. Mr. Rebarber also has produced reports and helped organize conferences for the council.

Two people knowledgeable about the ELC's finances, who did not want their names to be used, said the ELC has depended largely on federal money to stay open in recent months. Both said the group was in danger of dipping into federal money designated only for non-administrative activities for the Following the Leaders project.

Ms. Keegan denied those claims, saying that she "took steps internally" to ensure that the ELC did not "get forward on a grant." She acknowledged that she had largely failed to raise money from sources other than the federal government.

Mr. Rebarber said financial stability for the ELC would be "one of the benefits" of the merger. "There are things we're going to tighten internally," he said.

"I suspect we're probably guilty of some sloppiness," said Jim Horne, a former Florida education commissioner and the chairman of the ELC board. "I've gotten intimately involved in some of the accounting, and I don't think we've done anything wrong."

Face-Saving?

Mr. Rebarber said the ELC has clearance from officials of the U.S. Department of Education for the merged organization to use the grant money. "We've already gotten assurances from some folks at the department that we can structure this in a way that does not put this at risk," he said.

"They have complied with every request that we have made of them, and any concerns that we had earlier this year appear to have been resolved," Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the department, wrote in an e-mail statement in response to questions about the ELC last week.

Critics of the leaders' council and former ELC board members said last week that the move to merge with AccountabilityWorks looked like a financial bailout and a face-saving move for Ms. Keegan. The former Arizona state schools superintendent was hired in 2001 to turn the ELC into a stronger national voice for conservative-leaning state education officials, the core of the organization at its founding in 1995. ("Leaders Group Faces Shortcomings," Jan. 21, 2004.)

Ms. Keegan said she plans to remain a member of the council's board and to work as a volunteer consultant and speaker for the ELC. She said it was fair to question her ability to raise money for the council, which was conceived as an alternative to the long-established Council of Chief State School Officers and has been an advocate for school choice and accountability.

Nancy Keenan, a former state superintendent in Montana, said the ELC never attracted enough state leaders to build a financial base.

Now the education policy director for People for the American Way Foundation, which is an arm of the liberal advocacy organization, Ms. Keenan said the merger announced last week called into question the ELC's viability as a policy group.

"They just put on a different coat," she said of the changes, "and it emerges as though it's a new, healthy, strong movement—and it's not."

Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said the merger should enhance the ELC's capacity to perform technical-consulting work for states.

"However, I'm not sure what that does to clarify the organization's mission," he said. "If anything, it seems that it might muddy it."

Cheri Pierson Yecke, a former Minnesota education commissioner, who resigned in March from the ELC board, said she had worried about the ELC's use of federal money and believed that Ms. Keegan should have been forced to step down sooner.

But Mr. Horne rejected suggestions that the organization was in deep trouble.

"We're in the process of remaking ourselves," he said. "We have to scale down, we have to reduce the workforce, we have to tighten our belt, but we will be OK."

Questions About Grants

The newly configured ELC may separate itself from Following the Leaders, allowing it to stand on its own, Mr. Horne said.

The ELC was allocated $3.5 million from the Education Department's discretionary fund overseen by Secretary of Education Rod Paige. It also received $20 million in congressional earmarks over the past two years.

The council is asking for another $12 million in congressional earmarks for fiscal 2005, and several states have asked for their own earmarks for specific Following the Leaders work in their states, Ms. Keegan confirmed.

Ms. Yecke, the former board member, said: "We need to have a very clear understanding of how this money's spent before any [more] money gets put into this project."

The Following the Leaders program has several facets, but Ms. Keegan said most of the project focuses on helping schools improve student achievement to meet the goals of the No Child Left Behind law. More than 600 schools are involved in the program, which helps teachers monitor students' work using tests aligned with state academic standards.

Faye Taylor, the director of Following the Leaders since last year, acknowledged that the project had been slow to get off the ground. But she defended the overall program, citing significant test-score gains for Mississippi schools receiving help from Following the Leaders. Others aren't convinced the project has needed all the money it received from the federal government. Ms. Keegan said that an evaluation of Following the Leaders is under way.

"My biggest concern about Following the Leaders," Ms. Yecke said, "is that when we would ask what the program is attempting to do, it left us more confused than before."

Any organization "that uses taxpayers' money is obliged to be a responsible steward of the taxpayers' dollars, and that was not happening," Ms. Yecke contended.

Mr. Rebarber, who has run a charter school company and has worked in Washington policy circles for a variety of organizations, has three full-time employees and several paid consultants at AccountabilityWorks.

He said he was confident that the reorganized Education Leaders Council would find a more successful path.

"We're trying to pull everybody together around a common plan, a vision, and we're being very open about that as we're getting under way," Mr. Rebarber said. "We're working on where we should go and what our mission should be."

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