Lisa Graham Keegan, the former Arizona schools chief, ushered in a new version of a conservative-leaning education leaders’ group here last week, declaring it the right home for all reformers dissatisfied with the education establishment.
Ms. Keegan announced that the Education Leaders Council had changed its focus, expanded its membership base, and taken its place at the head of the movement to improve schools.
“We are the nation’s premier group of practicing reformers,” she declared, adding with a grin: “We are also the nation’s only group of practicing reformers.”
An important part of the group’s makeover involves Ms. Keegan herself. She helped found the ELC six years ago, soon after she was elected Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction. She resigned from that job a month ago to take the organization’s newly created position of chief executive officer. The move was widely seen as likely to raise the ELC’s profile. (“Arizona Chief Quits To Head Education Leaders Council,” May 9, 2001.)
Officials of the group said last week that it would push for rigorous academic standards and companion assessments, high-quality teaching, and increased flexibility from an accountability-conscious federal government.
The group features a slightly broadened board of directors, including former U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who chaired the House Education and the Workforce Committee before retiring from Congress in January.
Founded with the aim of creating an alternative to the Council of Chief State School Officers, the main group representing state superintendents and commissioners of education, the Washington-based ELC has catered mostly to elected education officials. But as a partner of the Center for Education Reform, also based in Washington, it has reached out to grassroots activists and business people with an interest in school choice and accountability.
Philosophy, Not Title
Ms. Keegan said last week that while the group has cut its formal ties with the Center for Education Reform, it will step up its efforts to recruit people from any career background, including university professors, principals, and classroom teachers, who share its approach to improving education.
“The ELC has evolved into a national organization of state and classroom education leaders affiliated by philosophy, not title,” Ms. Keegan said. “We will provide a home for a multitude of education reformers out there who up to now have not had a home.”
The chairman of the board of directors, Jim Nelson, the Texas commissioner of education, said the presence of a new Republican administration in Washington offers the group a chance “to become a more important voice for the children of this country.”
Both Mr. Nelson, a Republican, and Ms. Keegan offered support for President Bush’s education agenda, such as increased testing for accountability, while warning that regulations heaped on the states would undermine the positive effects of the new direction.
An education expert at a regional think tank advocating free-market principles predicted that the ELC would continue to wrestle with the tension between supporting Mr. Bush and demanding strict limits to the federal role in education.
Matthew J. Brouillette, the education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, also expressed disappointment that the group’s priorities no longer explicitly include support for voucher programs or tax credits that help parents with the cost of private school.
“It parallels the retreat we’ve seen in the White House on these issues as well, but this is the key to education reform,” he argued.
At the American Federation of Teachers, meanwhile, a spokeswoman scoffed at the notion that the ELC was the nation’s premier—or only—education reform group.
“They think they are the first practicing reformers?” Janet Bass, the spokeswoman, said. “For years, we have been at the forefront of the standards movement.”
A teacher in Florida who has formed an independent association for teachers in that state said that the ELC’s leadership is needed, but that it should not expect teachers to eagerly climb aboard.
“It’s going to receive lukewarm support,” predicted Ira J. Paul, a co-founder of Teachers for Better Education. “The reason is, the unions are so powerful the teachers are afraid to speak out.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as Education Leaders Council Changes Focus, Membership