A Streamlined E.C.S. Emerges After Losing Its $3-Million Grant

By Peggy Caldwell & John Chaffee Jr. — April 13, 1983 7 min read
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Late last year, when he was asked to assess the future of the Education Commission of the States, Gov. Robert D. Graham of Florida said he was “looking forward to a very boisterous birthday [in 1984] and not a wake.”

The recent loss of the large federal grant under which the Denver-based organization conducted the National Assessment of Educational Progress (naep) is likely to make the birthday party less boisterous, but officials of the interstate commission and outside observers believe it will indeed survive. But it will be a much smaller and, its administrators say, more enterprising and more narrowly focused agency.

By Oct. 1, the Education Commission of the States (ecs) will have an annual budget of $3.5 million and a staff of 55--down from $6.5 million and 117 employees as of Feb. 1, according to its executive director, Robert C. Andringa.

Few Will Lose Jobs

An early-retirement offer and a layoff schedule have been announced in the six weeks since the federal government announced that it was awarding the naep grant to the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J. Only a few ecs staff members who were not directly employed by the national assessment are likely to lose their jobs, Mr. Andringa said.

With the loss of the federal grant, ecs will rely more heavily on dues from member states (ranging from $22,000 to $66,000 annually, depending on populaàtion and per-capita income), grants from corporations and foundations, and contract projects for individual states, a relatively new service. Some staff members also expect that the commission will receive some smaller federal grants as “compensation” for the loss of the $20.3-million, five-year naep grant.

Of equal concern, however, are the diminished prestige and institutional capacity that will accompany the loss of the naep contract, several observers say. From 1969, when the commission began administering the federal project, until the past few years, the assessment and its staff operated almost independently of other ecs functions, staff members say.

But recently, Mr. Andringa and his senior aides have attempted to link the assessment more closely with the commission’s overall goal of assisting state governors, legislators, and educators with policy development. The commission has ventured in recent months into curricular issues--particularly those dealing with high technology--as well as the financial, legal, and technical areas that were its traditional bailiwick.

Roy Forbes, the longtime director of naep who was responsible for promoting that integration, said the commission probably would not have plunged into the high-technology field if it had not had ready access to the national assessment’s findings that students were performing poorly in critical subjects. While the data will still be available when the Educational Testing Service takes over the project, he said, “It won’t flow as naturally.”

The commission will also miss relationships, nurtured through naep, with scholars and other educators who are not part of the state-level policy network, Mr. Forbes added. Other observers have noted that naep brought to the commission’s Denver headquarters a “critical mass” of capable researchers who helped provide both technical proficiency and professional stimulus for the organization as a whole.

States’ Responsibilities

Due to the declining federal role in education and the declining share of local financial support for schools, the states’ responsibilities have never been greater. Therefore, Mr. Andringa and others say, the need for technical assistance and dissemination of information to the states is critical.

“We need to clarify our role as a service organization--not an advocacy group, but a service organization, one that can become an extension of state staffs,” Mr. Andringa said.

Conceived in the early 1960’s by James B. Conant, president emeritus of Harvard University, the commission was charged primarily with countering what was then a growing federal influence in education.

Owing largely to the efforts of Terry Sanford, then governor of North Carolina and now president of Duke University, the commission was formed in 1966 to provide state-level policymakers, both educators and politicians, with a forum and source of information that would guide the formation of education policy.

Many critics--and even some supporters--contend that ecs has failed to live up to its charge.

“It’s a potentially influential organization that hasn’t met its potential,” said Wilson C. Riles, California’s immediate past superintendent of public instruction. Mr. Riles agrees that the need for such an orga-nization is growing. “But the last thing we need,” he asserted, “is just another debating society.”

Governor Graham, who served a term as chairman of the commission, conceded that it was “difficult to perceive what, if any, progress” the organization had made in stemming federal influence, and suggested that the group should reassess its performance and goals next year.

Robert B. McCall, who recently retired after 14 years of responsibility for the commission’s relations with member states, noted that by the time the commission had been formed, a staff assembled, and operating policies agreed upon--around 1970--it was “too late to fend off the feds.”

Furthermore, Mr. McCall and others suggested, the very diversity of the ecs constituency impedes consensus on priorities. “Politicians want answers to questions now, so they can make use of the information immediately, while educators usually favor comprehensive in-depth studies before reaching conclusions,” he said.

In addition, said one longtime observer of the commission, the diffuse nature and frequent turnover of the constituency makes it difficult for ecs to maintain contact and consistency in its relations with the states--and, for that matter, to collect dues from members.

Some users of ecs services, however, give the commission’s staff high marks for its work, particularly in the areas of school finance and school law.

George Wilson, who served as education aide to former Governor Robert D. Ray of Iowa, views the commission as “a major resource for governors and their staffs. When we are reviewing major policy issues, we need to know what other states are doing, what the trends are, and there’s no better resource than ecs”

And Calvin M. Frazier, commissioner of education in Colorado and president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the commission “has been particularly responsive of late in providing comparative state data.”

In addition, its recently created task force on education for high technology, headed by Gov. James B. Hunt of North Carolina, is expected to enhance the commission’s visibility and prestige.

Well in advance of the loss of the grant for the national assessment, Mr. Andringa identified a fairly narrow constituency group for the commission, consisting of about 20 people from each of the 48 states and three territories that participate (Nevada and Montana are nonmembers), and began to emphasize service to these policy leaders.

The constituents include governors and their senior policy aides, key legislators and their aides, chief state school officers and their policy staffs, state boards of education, and citizens, such as Parent-Teacher Association leaders, who are considered influential in education policy.

The commission’s role, he believes, is “making these people more effective in their roles.”

‘Customizing’ Services

He also has emphasized “customizing” ecs services to meet the diverse needs of the states--a strategy that some observers believe will mesh well with the need to raise more money. State education agencies, observers point out, have lost some staff positions--and, along with them, some research capacity--as a result of federal cuts and state fiscal difficulties.

Recent ecs studies of higher education in Idaho and of school finance in New York are viewed as the kind of contractual work the commission is capable of soliciting and carrying out well. Such con-tracts accounted for about 6 percent of the commission’s budget in the fiscal year 1982 and were expected to supply about 9 percent of the fiscal 1983 budget, according to projections made last fall.

Mr. Andringa plans to establish programs that would bring former governors, legislators, and state superintendents to Denver regularly to work with the ecs staff. Also in the works are a “personnel exchange” that would permit employees of state education agencies to swap jobs temporarily with ecs staff members, and “strategic planning retreats’’ to help state boards develop their ability to craft policy.

Mr. Frazier of Colorado predicts that ecs will need to strengthen its appeal to governors and legislators, perhaps at the expense of relations with chief state school officers.

But like Mr. Andringa, he says the commission “can be stronger without naep” and adds that the next six to 12 months will be a critical period for ecs, testing “how well they adjust [and] how well they build relations with the states.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 1983 edition of Education Week as A Streamlined E.C.S. Emerges After Losing Its $3-Million Grant


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