Governors’ Education Plan Vying for Attention, Resources

By J.r. Sirkin — June 20, 2019 7 min read

WASHINGTON—Last summer, when Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee announced the National Governors’ Association’s bold new education initiative, the Governors’ Report on U.S. Education, 1991, it seemed at first blush a logical extension of the governors’ renewed interest in schools.

But as one observer noted at the time, Mr. Alexander, a Republican, had in fact “pulled a coup” by creating seven new education task forces and placing them on top of the N.G.A.'S entrenched committee structure.

Although focused on education, the task-force initiative was part of a broader effort to wrench the governors’ organization away from its federal-state focus and turn it into more of a service organization for the states.

Governors, Mr. Alexander said, “should spend more time on better schools and jobs” and “less time arguing about war, welfare, Social Security, and debt.” The N.G.A., he said, should help them “do better at what we spend most of our time doing.”

But with huge possible federal budget cuts hanging over their heads as a result of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law and the President’s proposed fiscal 1987 budget, that commitment was to be put to the test this week as the governors convened here for their annual winter meeting, marking a critical juncture in the ultimate success or failure of their education initiative.

Deep-Seated Split

A quick look at the agenda for the governors’ meeting here reveals a deep-seated split in the N.G.A.'s activities and the competing demands for the governors’ attention and resources that have resulted from that split.

In a move clearly designed to secure the best possible press coverage for its education initiative, the first day of the three-day meeting was set aside almost exclusively for discussion of education issues.

On Saturday, the day before the official start of the meeting, five of the seven task forces were to meet, most for the second time. On Sunday morning, the governors were scheduled to debate the format of the initiative’s “report card” aspect. A general discussion of education issues was scheduled for Sunday afternoon, including remarks by U.S. Education Secretary William J . Bennett.

But according to the governors’ agenda, education was not slated to be discussed on Monday or Tuesday. Both of those days were given over to the traditional heart of the N.G.A.'s activities—state-federal relations.

Indeed, given the Reagan Administration’s legislative agenda of budget cuts and tax reform, the governors appeared inexorably pressed to focus here on the Reagan Administration’s new federalism and its likely impact on state revenue and services.

For the N.G.A. and its education initiative, the question remains: to what extent does the organization’s traditional role of representing the governors in Washington supersede its efforts to rally governors of both parties to turn away from federal issues and focus their attention on solving common problems—including education—by themselves?

Key Issues Discussed

What makes this meeting so important is that it marks the first time the governors have met to debate the course of the 1991 initiative, including:

  • The task forces’ likely recommendations;
  • The cost implications of those recommendations; and,
  • The format for assessing the states’ progress in meeting those recommendations over the next five years.

Although the governors were not expected to settle those issues here, they were planning for the first time to discuss them and provide direction to their staffs on how to deal with them.

On Sunday, for example, Governor Alexander and the task-force chairmen were scheduled to outline for the other governors what they hope the 1991 initiative will accomplish between now and August, when the final task-force reports are due.

Until now, the governors have met only as members of their respective task forces—each serves on one of the seven panels. The larger questions about the shape of the initiative have been left primarily to staff members.

Governors Must Act

But some questions can be answered only by the governors themselves.

For example, although they have yet to decide on the final task-force recommendations, the governors have asked for cost analyses of the most likely recommendations, so they will have some idea of what they may be committing themselves to financially. Those cost estimates, however, are not due until April or May.

Another key issue here is the shape the report cards will take and how the information recorded on them will be collected, analyzed, and disseminated. With little available staff or resources, the N.G.A. itself is not equipped to perform these functions.

N.G.A. staff members have held meetings with U.S. Education Department officials and representatives of the Council of Chief State School Officers to discuss possible joint efforts. Recently, the N.G.A. formed a working group with the Educational Testing Service, the C.C.S.S.O., and the National Conference of State Legislatures, in an attempt to coordinate their data-collection activities.

All indications point to a likely agreement between the governors and the C.C.S.S.O. in which the chiefs’ new assessment center would coordinate the report-card effort.

One problem holding up such an agreement, however, is that the governors have not yet decided whether the report cards will rank the states or measure their improvement over time, although they are likely to favor the latter.

‘Natural Evolution’

According to Joan Wills, the director of the N.G.A.'s Center for Policy Research, which is managing the 1991 initiative, the N.G.A.s growing interest in state services and education in particular is part of a “natural evolution.”

“Nobody’s ever going to stop lobbying the federal government,” Ms. Wills said. But the interest in state services is “absolutely part of a larger new federalism,” she said, which has created a “real critical press on associations like ours to fill the gap in services.”

According to Ms. Wills, the N.G.A. has steadily increased the proportion of nondues revenue that it devotes to state services-now as much as 70 percent—and has “beefed up” its trade-association functions.

The significance of the 1991 initiative, she says, is that it represents “the first time the N.G.A. has been so internally focused on what states can do,” a de facto admission that what the federal government does is “not essential—and that’s not our policy.”

Education was an obvious choice for such an initiative, she said, because “the more states pay for education, the more governors demand that their association have the capacity to deal with it.”

“Name me another area in which there has been more of an increase in money spent at the state level than in education,” she said. “What’s the primary reaction states have been raising money? It’s education. Where have most of the reform initiatives been? Again, it’s education.

“In one form or another, it is on the agenda now and it will never go off,” she said. “You hit 45 percent of the states’ budgets and it stays on the platter.”

Limited Resources

Despite the N.G.A.'s movement into the state-services arena, the fact remains that it has been asked to produce a major education report with less than two full-time staff members and limited resources, primarily in-kind contributions.

According to the N.G.A. staff, Governor Alexander wanted it that way, because he preferred that the governors and their staffs run the task forces, not the N.G.A.

That way, they say, the governors would have a greater stake in the proceedings and would learn the most from them.

But with the push to get the final report out by August and coordinate the report card, the lack of central staff has become painfully apparent.

Several of the task-force meetings have been poorly publicized, perhaps due to confusion about who was supposed to promote them. Some of the meetings have also been poorly attended by the governors and their aides, leading to doubts about how seriously the governors are taking their own initiative.

On the other hand, the N.G.A. can point to several positive developments. Each of the task forces has met at least once, and many have received hundreds of individual written testimonies. Many of the meetings have also been well attended by the public.

The N.G.A. has also raised some 200,000 in grants to support the project, including $149,000 from the Tennessee-based Lyndhurst Foundation, $25,000 from the Carnegie Corporation, and $22,000 from the U.S. Education Department.

Another $150,000 grant from the secretary of education’s discretionary fund is being processed, Ms. Wills said.

At least one of the task force has also defrayed its costs by securing foundation funds.

But perhaps what augurs best for the project is the N.G.A.'s chairman-elect, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Mr. Clinton has already indicated that he will push it along next year, in addition to launching his own education initiative, which will focus on links between education and the economy.

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 1986 edition of Education Week

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