The Education Leaders Council, founded by dissident state policymakers nearly a decade ago to push a conservative agenda and now the recipient of millions in federal dollars, is trying to resolve questions about its management.
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Members of the board of directors have voiced concerns in recent months to Chief Executive Officer Lisa Graham Keegan that the council has fallen short of expectations on several counts.
Outlined in internal communications obtained by Education Week, those concerns include questions about federally financed projects, the council’s lack of success in getting more state leaders to join, and the effectiveness of its overall operations.
“I think we need to do a better job delivering the goods,” William J. Moloney, Colorado’s education commissioner and an ELC board member, said in an interview.
Mr. Moloney resigned as the chairman of the council’s board late last year. Board member and former California state school board member William J. Hume—who also has been one of the council’s biggest private funders— quit the board altogether.
Ms. Keegan, a former Arizona state schools chief, and others characterized the problems as growing pains typical of a maturing organization. They said those troubles were blown out of proportion by personality conflicts on the board of directors.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Education said last week that they continue to be satisfied with the ELC’s work.
“I am always more than willing to say my work could have been a lot better than it was,” Ms. Keegan said. “But my work for ELC I know has been totally committed. I’ve done it with integrity.”
The struggle comes at a time when, arguably, the council should be hitting its stride. Launched in 1995 by conservative-leaning state schools chiefs and state school board members who felt their views weren’t represented by more established policy groups, especially the Council of Chief State School Officers, the ELC is no longer an outsider organization.
The council now enjoys the backing of a White House that solidly supports its causes of school choice and educational accountability. One of its founders, former Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, is now the acting No. 2 official in the federal Education Department.
And yet, some major ELC initiatives have hit stumbling blocks, and some of the group’s allies have been disappointed by its slow growth.
“I had hopes that they would get to a position as one of the major leaders of education reform,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which had agreed to evaluate the ELC’s major project, but recently parted ways with the council over disagreements about methodology. “They just don’t seem to have done much.”
Audit Raises Issues
The rift apparently began last May, when the council’s auditor reported weaknesses in some internal controls. Among other issues, the auditor noted that the ELC hadn’t been sufficiently tracking staff time spent on its Following the Leaders project. Underwritten by $13.5 million in federal grants, the project gives technical assistance to schools in meeting the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
“We are not able to determine whether the amount of salaries charged to the grant represent the actual level of effort spent to support this grant,” the audit states.
Prompted by the review, Mr. Moloney asked the group to hire his former deputy schools chief from Colorado, Richard Elmer, to evaluate the council’s operations last summer. The review didn’t produce a written report, but Mr. Moloney wrote in a memorandum to other board members that Mr. Elmer had described the ELC’s management practices as “appalling.”
Using softer language in a recent interview, the Colorado education commissioner said: “I think that there are some serious administrative problems that have to be taken care of, and I’m confident the board can do this.” He also called the problems “eminently fixable.”
Ms. Keegan, who has served as the council’s CEO since 2001, disputes the claim that Mr. Elmer saw her organization’s operations as appalling, but said his review did point up the need to adopt new management practices, given its growing number of projects and increased federal funding.
“That required a lot of internal infrastructure that we needed to set up,” she said, adding: “All of the things that needed to be done were done.”
Now a consultant based in Eagle Bay, N.Y., Mr. Elmer declined to discuss the details of his recommendations.
Officials with the Education Department said last week that the ELC has resolved the questions raised by the auditor about tracking time spent on Following the Leaders.
But the inquiries led to a falling-out among members of the ELC board, of which Ms. Keegan is a member. While conceding that improvements were needed, she charges that the extent of the problems were exaggerated by Mr. Moloney and Mr. Hume.
In November, Mr. Moloney distributed a lengthy memo listing concerns about the ELC’s operations to the rest of the board. He mentioned “wide procedural disarray” and suggested the council was having trouble implementing its major federal projects.
Mr. Hume, who had contributed $500,000 of his own money to expand the council since Ms. Keegan came on board, did not return phone calls.
But a memo of concerns attributed to the food-industry magnate by the ELC says the May audit raises a number of “red flag” issues. Among them were questions about the employment terms of Ms. Keegan and her second in command at the ELC, then-president Billie Orr. Ms. Orr, who had health problems, retired last month.
The council’s chief of staff, John Schilling, who had served as Ms. Keegan’s policy-planning chief in Arizona, left the Education Leaders Council last summer.
Both Ms. Keegan and Ms. Orr, also a former deputy of Ms. Keegan’s at the Arizona education department, served in their positions at the ELC as independent contractors. Ms. Keegan, who earned $85,000 a year as state chief, is paid $235,000 a year, plus travel expenses. She receives no other benefits.
Mr. Hume’s memo seemed to question their salaries and their ability to fully oversee the council, given that both women maintained their permanent residences in Arizona and kept apartments near the ELC’s headquarters in Washington.
Ms. Keegan bristles at the suggestion that anything is amiss with the arrangement. Her role, she said, is not to manage the council’s main office, but to support the work of like-minded groups and individuals across the country. As for her status as a contractor, she said those were the terms of the agreement when she was hired.
“These are two people from a 17-member board who were circulating materials, making accusations,” she said. “The accusations they made were ludicrous.”
Frank T. Brogan, a former Florida education commissioner and a founding member of the ELC board, last week said the disputes among the ELC’s leaders were typical of an evolving organization.
“Any organization that has come along as far, and as fast, as ours, is subject to those pangs of growth,” he said. “I’ve belonged to enough organizations to know it when I see it, and I’m confident our books are in order and that Lisa will continue to provide us great leadership for years to come.”
Projects Hit Snags
Internal conflict aside, many of the ELC’s major initiatives have run into snags.
The council has spent $400,000 in federal money to encourage states to adopt the educator-credentialing process of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence.
To date, only Idaho and Pennsylvania have signed on, in part because the process faces opposition from critics who argue that it doesn’t sufficiently stress knowledge of teaching methods. The federal Education Department has underwritten the development of the evaluation tool with $40 million in grants, from which the ELC received the money to market it.
The Following the Leaders project also has had problems. Under the federally financed initiative, the ELC has hired a group of subcontractors to provide participating schools with assessment, tutoring, and other programs aimed at improving student performance. The goal is to model practices geared toward meeting the goals of the No Child Left Behind law.
Plans for the Fordham Foundation to evaluate the project collapsed last month. Both Ms. Keegan and Fordham’s Mr. Finn say the problem related to a disagreement over using control groups. While the foundation’s evaluator wanted to compare schools in the project against nonparticipating schools in the same districts, the ELC rejected the idea of telling districts to limit participation to only some of their schools.
Education Department officials said last week that the ELC has lived up to its grant agreements. The agency’s Fund for the Improvement of Education awarded $3.5 million to the group for Following the Leaders, while $10 million came as a congressional appropriation.
“We are monitoring that earmark, and they have done everything appropriately,” said Michael J. Petrilli, an associate deputy undersecretary in the department.
Mr. Finn, who called his breakup with the council “amicable,” expressed disappointment in its overall lack of growth in recent years—a view he shared in a memo that Mr. Moloney passed on to the rest of the ELC board last fall. Mr. Finn, who was an assistant U.S. secretary of education during the Reagan administration, suggested that the council needed stronger leadership in its Washington office.
“I was getting concerned, at that point, that the reality wasn’t living up to the promise of the organization,” he said.
When Ms. Keegan became the council’s CEO three years ago, she laid out an ambitious expansion plan, including the recruitment of up to 20 state schools chiefs. The council now claims six state chiefs as dues-paying members. Meanwhile, state membership in the Washington- based Council of Chief State School Officers, which had dipped to 46, is back to 49.
Ms. Keegan sees other measures of the ELC’s success, citing the No Child Left Behind Act itself as evidence that the group’s principles in areas such as accountability and school choice are taking hold. She also says the ELC hasn’t sought to be purely a state chiefs’ organization. Its members include educators, other individuals, and corporate sponsors, although Ms. Keegan adds that the board is re-evaluating its membership structure.
“Our goal as an organization is to seek out supportive leaders in the country who are working on a set of reforms,” she said. “And you don’t always find those people in the commissioner’s office or on state boards.”
Florida Commissioner of Education Jim Horne, who was elected chairman of the ELC board last month after Mr. Moloney resigned, said the group is ready to move ahead. The council’s board adopted new bylaws last month and plans to seek a new top manager for its operations.
Mr. Horne paints the ELC’s struggles of late as a consequence of its own success. Having grown beyond an informal group of like-minded policymakers, he said, the ELC now needs to rethink how its varied efforts fit in with its mission. He said he plans to put more of the council’s energies into advocacy instead of running programs.
“I think the ELC has played a very important role over the last eight years, and it will continue to carry the torch for education reform,” he said. “And we want to guard our reputation.”
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as Leaders Group Faces Shortcomings