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Published in Print: May 3, 2006, as Leader of State Chiefs’ Group to Step Down in August

Leader of State Chiefs’ Group to Step Down in August

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The top executive of the Council of Chief State School Officers announced last week that he would leave his post at the end of the summer, giving the group time to plan a lobbying strategy for the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act with a new director.

G. Thomas Houlihan Executive Director CCSSO

G. Thomas Houlihan, the CCSSO’s executive director since 2001, said he resigned for personal reasons and chose to do so now because the group is beginning the process of deciding what changes it will seek when Congress revisits the far-reaching law. Federal lawmakers are scheduled to reauthorize the 4-year-old measure in 2007, but most Washington observers expect action to be postponed a year, or maybe two.

“The worst thing I could do … is leave in the middle of that,” Mr. Houlihan said at a press conference here during the group’s annual legislative conference—most of which was spent talking about the federal law. “This way, CCSSO can have a new executive director before the NCLB debate gets heated.”

The group has hired Andy Tompkins, a former state commissioner of education in Kansas and now an associate professor of education at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, to lead the search to fill the job, which currently pays $208,000 a year.

In the five years since Mr. Houlihan took the reins of the Washington-based group, which represents state superintendents and commissioners of education, state schools chiefs have played arguably the most significant role in the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. They have been responsible for expanding their testing systems to provide annual tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school; designating which schools are making adequately yearly progress toward the law’s goals for student proficiency; and creating policies to ensure teachers are “highly qualified.”

In the process, the chiefs have had sometimes-contentious dealings with officials at the U.S. Department of Education over state compliance with the law. At the same time, some observers suggest that the CCSSO has worked too closely with the department, to the point of hiring two former Bush administration officials as consultants. ("Chiefs’ Group, Federal Department on Better Terms," April 27, 2005.)

“He was brought on to move the organization close to the administration, and that’s what he did,” Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research and advocacy group, and a former Democratic congressional aide, said of Mr. Houlihan.

Civility and Tension

The chiefs’ efforts to carry out the law—and the state of their relationship with federal officials—provided the main theme for the CCSSO’s legislative conference, April 23-26.

In both private and public roundtable discussions, the council’s members quizzed two top Education Department officials about forthcoming regulations under the law.

Raymond J. Simon, the deputy secretary of education, promised that the department would soon offer state officials technical assistance in complying with some of the law’s more complex rules.

When the department publishes its final rules detailing how schools can assess up to 2 percent of their students based on modified standards for special education students, it will have “technical support right along side of it,” he said in a session.

While the tone of the discussions was collegial, some chiefs expressed frustration that the department hasn’t moved quickly enough to complete the rules on assessing students against a modified standard—something promised more than a year ago by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in a speech to state chiefs and other education officials. ("States to Get New Options on NCLB Law," April 13, 2005.)

The state officials are also frustrated that the Education Department hasn’t approved many states’ plans for identifying highly qualified teachers and implementing state accountability systems.

“We haven’t gotten clarification on any of these issues,” Kathy Cox, Georgia’s elected superintendent of education and a Republican, said at the news conference. “I’m hopeful that they heard some of our concerns … and will go back and say, ‘We have to get some of this stuff resolved.’ ”

Such tension is the byproduct of the increased responsibility state officials have in putting federal education policy into practice. Because their role is unlikely to diminish under the the NCLB law, the CCSSO is likely going to need a good working relationship with the Education Department, Mr. Jennings said.

Mr. Houlihan, 55, said that after he leaves the CCSSO on Aug. 31, he plans to live in his home state of North Carolina and work as a consultant for two or three projects, which he did not name.

Vol. 25, Issue 34, Pages 21,26

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