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Published in Print: July 26, 2006, as ECS Prepares to Set Agenda, Find President

ECS Prepares to Set Agenda, Find President

Efforts give state group chance to chart future.

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The next six months may be some of the most important in the 41-year history of the Education Commission of the States.

Facing financial difficulties and a leadership transition, the clearinghouse on state education policy will survey its members and the philanthropic community in an effort to evaluate the services it provides and to shore up its finances. At the same time, the ECS will search for a new president to replace Piedad F. Robertson, who announced at its annual conference here this month that she plans to leave that job early next year.

“This is the time when ECS can really look at where it fits in the landscape of education reform and the education association world,” Christopher T. Cross, a former distinguished fellow for the ECS and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, said last week. “This needs to be an introspective process looking at where they were, where they are today, and what the future will be.”

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the chairwoman of the ECS, will oversee the review and the selection process. “This can be an opportunity to rehone and redefine and set a course for a future,” she said in an interview at the end of the July 11-14 conference. “In difficult times, there are great opportunities for change and reinvigoration.”

Gov. Sebelius said she wants to include officials from several prominent philanthropies in the discussions, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Joyce Foundation, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The first meeting will be in August, she said.

The discussion will need to address where the Denver-based organization’s mission as a nonpartisan information clearinghouse fits at a time when several new groups are building agendas based on their own research, said Charles R. Coble, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based consultant and a former ECS vice president.

There may also be talk of whether to expand the group’s services—and membership—to mayors and other local officials who play an increasingly large role in setting education policy, added Mr. Cross, who is now a consultant based in Danville, Calif.

Changes Coming

The ECS, like other nonprofit groups serving state officials, has faced financial difficulties in recent years, starting when states faced severe revenue shortfalls early in the decade. But its problems became public this spring when Kathy Christie, the group’s No. 2 official and a 17-year ECS employee, resigned and said in a letter to the ECS steering committee that Ms. Robertson had failed to inform the board of the group’s troubled financial straits.

Several other staff members resigned the same week, and some of them also questioned Ms. Robertson’s management. ("ECS Resignations Raise Questions of Fiscal Health," May 10, 2006.)

At the end of meeting here in Minneapolis, Ms. Robertson announced at a members-only business meeting that she would leave on Feb. 1, two years to the day after she started the job.

Ms. Robertson, a former president of Santa Monica College near Los Angeles, said in a later telephone interview that she decided to leave her post because she had accomplished much of what she set out to do in the job, such as giving higher education issues more prominence in the ECS’ work.

“This organization stopped talking about higher education five years ago,” she said.

She also said she wants to live full time in Santa Monica, where her husband has remained on the faculty of the junior college she led for 10 years before moving to ECS.

Ms. Robertson said she was departing voluntarily and hadn’t been asked to leave by the group’s executive committee.

Balancing Books

While searching for Ms. Robertson’s successor, Gov. Sebelius, a Democrat seeking re-election this fall, will work to shore up the organization’s financial future.

In the 2005 annual report released here, ECS financial statements listed a $304,138 deficit on operating expenses of $7.7 million last year. The $3.8 million it collected in state fees was slightly more than in 2004, but revenue from grants and contracts declined dramatically, from just under $5 million in 2004 to $2.6 million in 2005.

The report lists several grants and contracts won by the ECS in 2005 from sources such as the Gates Foundation, which awarded it $778,010 to analyze state high school policies; the State Farm Companies Foundation, which provided $300,000 for meetings and forums; and the U.S. Department of Education, which awarded it a $250,000 grant to track charter school policies. Some of those grants will be spread out over more than one year.

Even though grant funding has declined, Ms. Sebelius said that ECS auditors have assured the group’s leaders that the “finances are in pretty good shape and about the same shape they’ve been in for a decade.”

Fourteen states haven’t paid their dues this year, the governor said, which is an improvement over the lean fiscal times when even more states didn’t appropriate money for their ECS dues.

“One of the goals is to get all the states involved and paying dues again,” she said.

Store of Information

During the upcoming deliberations over the organization’s future, Mr. Coble and Mr. Cross expect that participants will look for ways to build on its original mission of collecting information about state policies on all matters related to education, from preschool through higher education.

Mr. Coble said the database of such policies that the ECS maintains is not as widely used as it could be because policymakers are unaware of how much information is available in it or how to mine it for what they want.

But the ECS’ role as an unbiased broker of information is an important one in an era when political discourse across the spectrum of policy issues is increasingly partisan and strident, said Mr. Coble, who was the group’s vice president of policy studies and programs from 2002 to 2005.

“There needs to be room for civility and opportunities for people who have goodwill to have a place to find common ground,” he said. The ECS, he believes, could play that role in education.

Vol. 25, Issue 43, Pages 1,25

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