State Chiefs’ Group Readies For New Direction

By Alan Richard — November 21, 2001 5 min read
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Long considered one of the nation’s most influential education groups, the Council of Chief State School Officers wants to carve out a new path for itself.

Guided by competition, a fresh mission, and a turnover in leadership, the group’s newly minted direction is well-timed, members say, to influence Congress as it finishes an education bill that promises big changes for states.

The Washington-based nonprofit group hired an executive director this past summer to lead the organization through its crossroads: G. Thomas Houlihan, who had served as chief education adviser to former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina.

G. Thomas Houlihan

“I suspect you’ll see the organization reorganized in a way that is much more customer-friendly,” Mr. Houlihan said in a recent interview. “It will not be driven by ideology,” he said, but by a mission the group will be asking its members to develop.

Under former Executive Director Gordon M. Ambach, who had led the CCSSO since 1987 and had been affiliated with the group for more than 30 years, the organization grew from a professional group for state commissioners and superintendents of education. Today, the organization houses about 32 education-related research and technical-assistance projects.

But CCSSO members seem ready to take a new look at the council’s role in shaping national and state education policy. Talk of the group’s mission dominated its annual meeting, held here Nov. 9-11 at Oklahoma City’s Myriad Convention Center.

Suellen K. Reed, the state superintendent in Indiana since 1992, took over as the council’s new president at the conference. She says her role is to help the group think through and establish that mission.

“This is a lot to do,” Ms. Reed said in her acceptance speech here after being elected to a one- year-term as president. “Can we do it all? And should we do it all? How do we prioritize our work?”

The state chiefs and deputies—sometimes in private sessions—also told Mr. Houlihan what they want.

The list included more training and networking between state leaders; better expertise and information for state education agencies; and an enhanced ability to bend ears in Congress, the White House, and the U.S. Department of Education.

‘Don’t Be Intimidated’

Peter McWalters, the education commissioner in Rhode Island and the outgoing CCSSO president, echoed that idea.

He praised the Bush administration for seeing education as a national priority, but he questioned how many states could afford significantly more testing and accountability efforts, as President Bush seeks in the pending education bill.

“We’re responsible for it, when it’s all said and done,” Mr. McWalters said of the group’s role in education and their role in the bill in Congress. “Don’t be intimidated, and above all, bear witness to the complexity—the incredible complexity—of doing this stuff right.”

It also was obvious from conversation among CCSSO leaders that a new competitor in Washington is pressing the state chiefs’ group to redefine itself.

The emergence of the Education Leaders Council, the five-year-old group now headed by former Arizona schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan, as a force in national and state education policy has been a spur to the CCSSO, which was founded in 1927. (“No Longer a ‘Splinter,’ ELC Flexes New Political Muscle,” Oct. 10, 2001)

“Any time there is competition, it certainly should make you stop and look at what you’re doing,” Mr. Houlihan said. “They have every right to be doing what they’re doing.”

He contends that the CCSSO fills a different, broader niche than that of the ELC, which has focused primarily on standards-based reforms and has tended to attract politically conservative members.

Although President Bush, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and state schools chiefs from at least nine states are ELC members, the CCSSO counts 46 states and schools chiefs among its dues-paying members. In addition, 49 of the 50 states, and several territories, pay the CCSSO for specific services.

The states that aren’t members of the CCSSO—Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania—are ones whose state superintendents have strong ties to the ELC.

Susan Tave Zelman, Ohio’s appointed state superintendent, is one of the few members of both groups. She’s on the CCSSO board, but says she likes to keep up with issues like school choice and home schooling that the ELC particularly tracks. “It’s not either-or for me,” she said.

Right now, the CCSSO also is built differently from the ELC. Eighteen foundations, four federal agencies, and several corporate donors underwrite the CCSSO’s $17.5 million budget and long list of projects.

At any time, the group’s 70 employees are working primarily on programs that such funders are paying for, Mr. Houlihan explained.

“We do not have the luxury of having a narrow-focused ideology,” Mr. Houlihan told his members at the meeting here. “We do not have individual dues for individual chiefs or lieutenant governors or whatever.”

He’s putting off new grants until the CCSSO clarifies its mission, which was welcome news to many of the 19 state chiefs or representatives here.

“In five years, this is the best understanding of this organization that I’ve had,” remarked Terry Bergeson, the superintendent of schools in Washington state.

Finding a Mission

Many state chiefs say they find that sharing ideas and debating solutions are among the group’s most helpful activities. Oklahoma schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett recalled how New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy consulted her on Sept. 11 about whether to hold school following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

She told her fellow state chiefs what she told Mr. Levy: Open the schools, but don’t require attendance. It’s a tactic she used when Midwest City, outside Oklahoma City, saw some of its schools destroyed by a tornado a few years ago.

“The component I’m interested in is, who has unlocked the box? What states are doing what is working?” said Cecil J. Picard, the state superintendent in Louisiana.

Having a stronger, more focused voice in Washington emerged as another goal for council members.

Utah Superintendent Steven O. Laing said the CCSSO would play a more active role on Capitol Hill. The key will be for the group to find consensus among state chiefs, who cover the political spectrum and can be either elected or appointed.

Judy Jeffrey, a deputy state superintendent in Iowa, however, suggested that differences form the beauty of the organization, but with an underlying consensus.

Everyone wants to improve education for every student, she said. “We have no disagreement about that.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as State Chiefs’ Group Readies For New Direction


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