Audit of ECS Tops Gov. Branstad's Activist Agenda

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The Education Commission of the States will get a top-to-bottom audit under Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, who takes over as the chairman of the Denver-based policy clearinghouse next month.

The audit is part of an activist agenda that the four-term Republican governor says responds to low member involvement and a need for greater focus by the national education policy consortium.

In the past year as chairman-elect, he has convened several technology working groups and recruited National Education Association President Bob Chase to take one of five nonmember seats on the commission's 15-member policy and priorities committee.

"I'm hands-on, direct, and I try to make clear where I'm going," Mr. Branstad said in an interview last week. "This [chairmanship] is something I really wanted to do and felt I could make a real contribution."

Audit Ahead

Since its inception in 1966 as a nonpartisan organization that helps state leaders craft school policy, the commission, which has 60 staff members and an $8 million annual budget, has had periodic performance reviews.

But Mr. Branstad upped the stakes by naming Govs. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, a Republican, and James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, a Democrat, to lead the newest effort. Each is a past ECS chairman.

Details of the audit, its budget, and the firm that will conduct it will likely be discussed at the commission's annual meeting, scheduled for July 9-12 in Providence R.I.

"With two governors heading this, it will raise the profile and make it more extensive than any internal audit," said Jon E. Litscher, the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Employment Relations, who was Mr. Thompson's liaison to the ECS during that governor's 1996 chairmanship.

The review will cover management, procurement, and policy, an aide to Mr. Branstad said. And there will be no sacred cows. "For this to work, it must be comprehensive," the governor said.

The group's 371 commissioners, typically state legislative leaders and others chosen by the governors of its 49 member states, will also be interviewed. Montana is the lone nonmember state.

"I'm sincerely interested in getting commissioners more involved," added Mr. Branstad, who lamented that fewer than half of the commissioners participate in ECS activities.

Frank Newman, who as ECS president has been the organization's full-time chief executive since 1985, said commissioner interest is rising. But it's hard to overcome conflicting schedules and turnover among legislators, he said.

"It's not an audience, it's a parade," Mr. Newman said of legislatures.

And while he welcomes the review, Mr. Newman said staff members are reacting with a mix of anxiety, curiosity, and enthusiasm. He added: "One thing that we'd be foolish to think is that we have all the answers."

Tapping Technology

Each year, alternating Republican and Democratic governors take over the ECS chairmanship. Each picks a policy theme for his or her tenure. The current chairman, Democratic Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia, picked investing in student achievement.

Early last month, Mr. Branstad sent ECS commissioners a brochure outlining his theme, "Harnessing Technology for Teaching and Learning." Technology is a natural emphasis for Mr. Branstad. His administration has overseen development of a statewide fiber-optics system and backed a $150 million school technology fund.

But as ECS chairman, he wants to focus on teacher preparation and the best uses of computers and technology in the classroom. Mr. Branstad said the ECS "is in the best position to share information about what's working around the country."

He also wants schools to stop relying on vendors for expertise. "We want to make sure that investments are wise, thoughtful, and in the best interest of the community," he added.

"Just because other people are addressing technology doesn't mean there's not a role for ECS," said Stanley S. Litow, the president of the IBM Foundation and another of Mr. Branstad's choices for the ECS policy panel. "The challenge is not to duplicate what others are doing."

Laying Groundwork

Gov. Branstad is already getting high marks for his early start.

"We're always trying to push this with governors, but we're further ahead than we've ever been," Mr. Newman said. For example, most governors make committee appointments in the fall. In contrast, four of Mr. Branstad's five picks for the policy committee have already verbally accepted his invitation to join the panel.

And Mr. Branstad, who has spent much of his 15 years as governor courting Democrat-majority legislatures, is reaching out to education and business groups, including the NEA, a traditional GOP nemesis. "Bob Chase is interested in making NEA a less partisan and more inclusive organization," the governor said. "So this is an opportunity to do that."

In an interview, Mr. Chase said that he was not sure if his invitation was official. Mr. Branstad said that it was. "If he appoints me to this group, there'd be a belief that he's reaching out in a bipartisan way to improve education," Mr. Chase added. "I'd welcome that."

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