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Published in Print: April 12, 2006, as Schools on Their Own With ‘Following the Leaders’ Work

Schools on Their Own With ‘Following the Leaders’ Work

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More than 500 schools that have signed on to use a free, federally financed school improvement program will have to pay for it after this school year if they want to continue.

Following the Leaders, the successor to the Education Leaders Council, which started the program, owes the federal government nearly $500,000 in overdrafts on grants supervised by the U.S. Department of Education. The organization says it is working to address financial questions raised in a January audit, but can’t promise its network further services.

“We made a commitment to these schools when we asked them to join this initiative, and I feel very, very strongly about my responsibility to provide for them what we promised for as long as we possibly can,” Faye P. Taylor, the chief executive officer of Following the Leaders, said in a recent interview.

The Rise and Fall of the Education Leaders Council
    September 1995
  • The Education Leaders Council is launched as a national policy organization by 11 mostly conservative education leaders, including Eugene W. Hickok, Pennsylvania’s secretary of education and later the U.S. deputy secretary of education; Frank T. Brogan, Florida’s commissioner of education; and Lisa Graham Keegan, the Arizona state superintendent of public instruction. The group is seen as an alternative to the long-established Council of Chief State School Officers.

Ms. Taylor, a former Tennessee state education commissioner, was a member of the board of the Education Leaders Council, the Washington-based group that landed nearly $33 million in congressional earmarks for the project. But the council, which was started in 1995 as a conservative-leaning policy organization for state schools chiefs and other education officials, ran into leadership and financial trouble. ("Leaders Group Faces Shortcomings," Jan. 21, 2004)

Last December, just before the release of the critical federal audit, the organization changed its name to Following the Leaders, which is also the name of the school improvement project it has offered since 2002.("Audit Faults Spending by Leaders Council," Feb. 15, 2006)

Now, Ms. Taylor and one other full-time employee are based in an office in Springfield, Tenn., the town 30 miles north of Nashville where Ms. Taylor lives. The council’s Washington office has closed, its staff has been dismissed, an announced merger with the nonprofit group AccountabilityWorks was reversed, and the group plans no activities beyond the Following the Leaders work, Ms. Taylor said.

In the March 29 interview, Ms. Taylor insisted that the changes would not affect Following the Leaders’ ability to serve its member schools in 10 states with technological tools and training geared toward improving student achievement.

Two companies are the main vendors for Following the Leaders’ services: Achievement Technologies Inc. of Newton, Mass., which provides software that helps teachers monitor students’ skills using tests that are aligned with each state’s academic standards, and The Princeton Review, a New York City-based test-preparation company, which offers a Web-based tutorial program to help students sharpen their skills.

Iowa has the largest number of schools in the program, Ms. Taylor said. The Iowa School Boards Association provides the program for some 225 schools there. An estimated 123 schools in Alaska participate in FTL, along with 48 in Tennessee, 35 each in Ohio and West Virginia, 34 in Mississippi, 24 in Illinois, 13 in Pennsylvania, and seven in Rhode Island.

Federal funding for FTL will end by summer for all schools enrolled, although Ms. Taylor said Congress could appropriate money for the program in the future, especially for schools in particular states. Indeed, federal lawmakers continued to provide earmarked appropriations for the project in 2004, despite questions about its effectiveness. ("Project Draws Federal Money, Despite Doubts," Jan. 12, 2005)

“We have tried to put all of the money that we possibly can into the continued support for our schools,” Ms. Taylor said.

Following the Leaders will now help small rural schools tap into technology programs for improving achievement that they could not otherwise afford, she said. Schools would be required to pay for the services, however.

Ambitious Goals

The board of directors of Following the Leaders includes some of the people who oversaw the Education Leaders Council during its decline. Jim Horne, a former Florida education commissioner, remains the president. Lisa Graham Keegan, the council’s former chief executive officer, also retains her seat on the board.

And despite past concerns by some ELC board members that chief executive officers should not serve on the board, Ms. Taylor also retains her seat. The other current board members are Karen McGee, a member of the Idaho state board of education, and former Pennsylvania state schools chief Charles B. Zogby. Mr. Zogby is also a former senior vice president at the McLean, Va.-based K12 Inc., the online education company headed until last year by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

Mr. Horne, Mr. Zogby, and Ms. McGee did not respond to requests for interviews.

Other board members have resigned in recent months, citing Following the Leaders’ new direction, including Florida Commissioner of Education John L. Winn.

Grant documents that the Education Leaders Council and Following the Leaders have submitted to the Education Department described more ambitious goals than simply a one-stop shop for benchmarking and tutorial software for rural schools.

Documents on the Following the Leaders project for fiscal 2003, for example, claimed it would help states and school districts “achieve adequate yearly progress” on student academic performance as required under the No Child Left Behind Act. The project also set goals that “all teachers in FTL schools will be using a standards-based accountability system,” and that states “will have a usable database of instructional resources for use by every teacher in the state.”

Group’s Role Defended

The first formal evaluation of FTL, to be conducted by SRI International of Menlo Park, Calif., is due by late this year, Ms. Taylor said.

While acknowledging that the mission of Following the Leaders has narrowed, Ms. Taylor defended the project as influencing state policies and the way schools monitor student achievement in hundreds of communities.

“It was never FTL’s mission to provide all of that, but to see that it was provided,” Ms. Taylor said.

The private companies that signed on to the project say it wasn’t envisioned that the federal government would pay for the program over the long term. “The schools are going to need to find funding, either through the states or on their own,” said Steven Hodas, an executive vice president for The Princeton Review.

Mr. Hodas said he liked the idea that FTL could become an “intermediary” to link rural schools and districts with vendors like his company. Otherwise, it’s difficult for small school systems to contract with large education and software companies for services, he said.

Contractors have worked to keep services flowing, even when it means donating time or resources, said Michael J. Perik, the chairman and chief executive officer of Achievement Technologies, the company that provides Following the Leaders’ benchmarking software, training, and local project managers.

“We’ve essentially said anybody who wants it, we’re not shutting them off even if they didn’t have the resources,” Mr. Perik said.

Questionable Spending

The audit released earlier this year by the Education Department, conducted by its inspector general, found that the Education Leaders Council didn’t comply with federal regulations and overdrew its grant by $495,326. The audit blamed “weak or non-existent” internal controls for the problems and said the council used grant money for expenses not related to the FTL project.

The group’s part-time chief financial officer, Meave O’Marah of Denham, Mass., said it is awaiting word from the Education Department on guidelines for spending its remaining federal money. She and Ms. Taylor dispute that the organization owes as much as the audit is seeking.

“We are continuing to operate and expect to continue going for some time,” Ms. O’Marah said.

Some of the charges questioned in the federal audit belonged to Ms. Keegan, a former Arizona state schools chief and legislator who resigned as the ELC’s chief executive in 2004, after financial problems began to plague the organization. She acknowledged that she had raised little money for the ELC besides the federal grants designated for the Following the Leaders project. ("Education Leaders Council Undergoing Major Changes," Sept. 23, 2004)

The audit describes, for instance, charges made to the federal FTL grant for a trip to a resort at Teton Village, Wyo., for a conference that appeared to be unrelated to FTL business. Ms. Keegan explained the charges by saying that her spouse’s expenses should have been placed on a personal credit card on file with her assistant.

“At no time was FTL charged by me for personal expenses,” she wrote in an e-mail last month to Education Week. “Those charges were corrected when I was told of them after I had left ELC.”

Despite the questions about the use of FTL funds, Ms. Taylor said there is no evidence that suggests any taxpayer money was used illegally or purely for personal charges.

The future of FTL depends on the Education Department’s decisions and “how cooperative they are and how supportive they are of our missions,” she said. “I can’t make any assumptions at this point.” The Education Department declined repeated requests for comment on Following the Leaders.

‘Very Disappointed’

Schools that use Following the Leaders have learned through their local project directors that federal funding will end after this school year.

Superintendent Marianne T. Bartley of the Lebanon, Pa., schools is among those feeling let down by the project, which she designated as a key part of her district’s plan to raise its level of academic performance.

“I am very disappointed with the way the project unfolded,” said Ms. Bartley, whose 4,200-student district is 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The district’s seven public schools still have FTL posters on the walls because of local educators’ enthusiasm for the program.

“There were big promises, but with dwindling support, and a withdrawal of funds, the project has not had the impact we expected,” Ms. Bartley said.

Ronald Duerring, the superintendent of the 28,500-student Kanawha County, W.Va., school district, which includes Charleston, plans to continue the program and is lobbying state and federal lawmakers for financial support. All of his district’s 69 schools are using Following the Leaders’ technology package as a central part of a strategy to meet the goals set under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“We still see success with it,” Mr. Duerring said. “It’s one of the pieces of the puzzle that’s helped us to increase achievement.”

Mike Flynn, the superintendent of the 1,800-student Senatobia, Miss., schools, said the district intends to use a new benchmarking tool developed by Mississippi next school year, but plans to buy tutorial software from The Princeton Review.

“We have been very pleased with the program,” he said of Following the Leaders. “We have received very good support, but we have been notified that if we continue to use it after this year, it would be at our cost.”

Susie Olsen, who runs FTL in Iowa for the state school boards’ association there, said her organization hopes to continue with the program. “We’ve sought some funding from other sources, and we’re just trying to figure out how to continue to fund the program,” she said. “We kind of leave the politics to other people.”

Vol. 25, Issue 31, Pages 8-9

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