New Challenges Seen as Key Tests Of E.C.S.'s Political Muscle

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As it embarks on a pair of high-profile challenges, the Education Commission of the States faces doubts and discontent from the state policymakers and political leaders it was created to serve.

The Denver-based commission, established in 1966 to connect varied state education constituencies, last month won a $15 million grant from the philanthropist Walter J. Annenberg, as part of his decision to give $500 million to education.

The E.C.S. is to use the money to spread the news of model programs developed by another Annenberg grantee, the New American Schools Development Corporation, as well as other pilot programs. (See related story, page 1.)

Meanwhile, Gov. Pete Wilson of California has announced that E.C.S. officials will guide the drafting of a comprehensive school-reform plan with bipartisan appeal.

Both tasks will test the political muscle and policy skills of the E.C.S. at a time when its members have begun to raise questions about the organization's effectiveness and clout.

State delegates who coordinate the E.C.S.'s State Education Policy Seminars met in Nashville last month, for example, to discuss a host of concerns about the commission's support for their program, which is aimed at stimulating intrastate discussions of education-policy issues.

Participants at the meeting said that, while E.C.S. officials expressed a willingness to bolster the SEPS program, the promise to invigorate their state-policy agenda was greeted with some skepticism.

"Early on, E.C.S. had set the agenda on state policy,'' a SEPS representative said. "But we don't know what their agenda is anymore, and neither do they. We're their constituents that make things happen.''

No Reform Powerhouse

As it ventures into the tangled web of California politics, observers say the E.C.S. is not a powerhouse in the school-reform debate.

For one thing, analysts suggest, the commission's clout has been sapped by the growing presence of the National Governors' Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures, both of which have developed substantial education programs in recent years.

Moreover, some observers and representatives to the E.C.S. argue, the organization has become deficient in policy and political savvy.

"They have always been good at technical analyses, but what they have are researchers without strong political skills,'' said Michael B. Kirst, a professor at Stanford University with longstanding ties to the E.C.S. "This is a political orchestrating job. They are talking to a whole different audience.''

"There is the question of how much depth and substance is there,'' added a Washington-based education-policy consultant.

E.C.S. officials, meanwhile, contend that their involvement with the Annenberg and California initiatives shows that the organization is changing.

"This is a substantial step forward because we've most often been in the background, where we are more comfortable,'' said Frank Newman, the president of the E.C.S. "There is a transformation going on.''

Networking and Analysis

Interviews with a dozen state and national education officials with ties to the E.C.S., some of whom asked not to be identified by name, painted a portrait of an organization that is effective in encouraging networking among state education leaders.

Annual conferences are often a good meeting ground for state education officials to compare notes, participants said.

The E.C.S. also has ample expertise in the analysis of school reform, which is often the focus of projects and seminars funded by foundation and corporate grants.

Even before Mr. Annenberg's donation, foundation and corporate funding provided 45 percent of the E.C.S. budget, compared with 36 percent for state fees.

But the meetings rarely inspire a sense of insight on new policy directions, participants say. And the sophisticated, foundation-backed analyses are often unconnected to the practical concerns of the states.

"There are serious problems with focus,'' one state lawmaker said. "They try to be all things to too many people. The fact that they are always out chasing grants means that they've lost the thrust toward state policy.''

State Policy Involvement

One telling criticism of the E.C.S. is that it has not been a key player in many major reform efforts at the state level. And most of the policy involvement by the E.C.S. in state reform packages that has occurred has until now happened in relatively small states.

"They are good at generating money and ink, but they have not been a real force for change and improvement in education,'' one higher-education official said.

In Kentucky in 1990, Mr. Newman helped lawmakers identify education-reform issues after the state supreme court ordered the legislature to rewrite its school laws. But the commission faded from the process after recommending consultants to do the nuts-and-bolts work.

Late last year in Michigan, as the legislature pondered comprehensive school reform, the E.C.S. was consulted only to offer an analysis of both Gov. John Engler's plan and a separate House bill.

But the California project offers the E.C.S. a chance to influence reform in a closely watched state for its political and fiscal significance.

"At least they are here, and they are visible,'' Mr. Kirst said. "This is their first attempt to do something major in a large state, and how well they adapt and how well they will do is so far an unknown.''

Schoolhouse and Statehouse

One of the E.C.S.'s most important reform efforts has been Re:Learning, a collaborative with the Coalition of Essential Schools that has helped several states launch school-based reform projects aimed at reaching "from the schoolhouse to the statehouse.''

Yet, critics say, even that well-regarded effort has made more progress changing individual schools than overhauling entire systems.

"We have seen a great willingness to change on the part of teachers and administrators, but the factors outside the school building have been much more powerful than we expected,'' noted Tom McGreal, a University of Illinois professor who works with the Illinois Alliance of Essential Schools.

Problems in winning assistance from teachers' unions, the state education department, the legislature, and the governor's office have slowed the progress, he said.

"At that level, where we initially hoped E.C.S. would do its work, we really haven't seen much movement in the way of reform,'' Mr. McGreal said. "They are a politically useful group, but they have no clout with the state.''

'Parallel Transformation'

Many of the criticisms of the E.C.S. have already been addressed, said Mr. Newman, adding that the organization is prepared to provide Governor Wilson with a far-reaching reform plan that will withstand the political process.

"We have made the decision that we ought to get involved in states helping to implement change, even though it would have been simpler to say, 'We are in the business of strategies and analysis, and good luck,''' he said. "Our transformation parallels the transformation of the reform movement.''

"Now that we know a lot about how to run schools at higher levels, we need to accelerate the spread and change the basic nature of the system,'' he contended.

The E.C.S. staff has become more expert in reform strategies and politics, he argued.

"We're as skilled as anybody in the country, but that's not very skilled,'' he said. "This is a very demanding task.''

Vol. 13, Issue 18

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