New Alliance Endeavors To Put Schools First

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The leaders of 12 education organizations, most of them based here, are putting aside their past differences and forming a new coalition to focus on raising student achievement and boosting support for public schools.

But instead of lobbying for more education funding from Congress, the Learning First Alliance--which will include the two national teachers' unions, groups representing school administrators, the National School Boards Association, and the National PTA--will focus most of its energy on getting members of local affiliates to collaborate.

"This is radical stuff," Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the NSBA, said during an interview last week. "For the first time, these 12 organizations are saying we're going to be serious about working cooperatively."

Plans for a Summit

The group's first project will be to convene a January summit in Washington to discuss research about improving students' math and reading skills and to come up with specific projects based on common goals.

Learning First Alliance Members
  • American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
  • American Association of School Administrators
  • American Federation of Teachers
  • Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
  • Council of Chief State School Officers
  • Education Commission of the States
  • National Association of Elementary School Principals
  • National Association of Secondary School Principals
  • National Association of State Boards of Education
  • National Education Association
  • National PTA
  • National School Boards Association

The topic for the summit parallels President Clinton's controversial initiative for new reading tests for 4th graders and math tests for 8th graders, but Ms. Bryant said the positions of the 12 groups are "all over the map" on the issue of national tests.

Between six and 15 leaders from each of the 12 organizations will be invited to participate in the summit. Representatives from other education groups will also be invited.

The alliance has existed in another form since the early 1970s, as the Forum of Educational Organization Leaders, but that included only the leaders of the 12 associations and was merely a "meet and eat" group, said Don Cameron, the executive director of the NEA.

Efforts to do anything more than talk to each other failed, he said, because of the inherent rivalries between labor and management, reflected in the disparate memberships of the participating groups.

"We won't be effective unless we let this filter down throughout our organizations," Mr. Cameron said.

New leadership at some of these 12 groups--Sandra Feldman at the American Federation of Teachers, Bob Chase at the NEA, Ms. Bryant at the NSBA, and Paul Houston at the American Association of School Administrators--is one factor behind the renewed commitment to joining forces, Mr. Cameron said.

But, he added: "Even with this change of leaders, we could have gone on with our intramural squabbles."

New Name, Same People?

Some of the organizations represented in the Learning First group were also part of the Education First Alliance, a 1995 effort that focused on preventing cuts in federal education spending.

And similar coalitions abound in Washington, Ms. Bryant said. The question will be whether Learning First's unified front will be enough to break down some of the walls between local educators, board members, and parents.

"These organizations are going to have to stick to it for five to 10 years," said John F. Jennings, a veteran Democratic House aide who now directs the Center on Education Policy, an independent group based here that promotes better public schools. "But it's a good beginning."

Observers said it seems clear the groups are paying attention to surveys that show declining support for public schools, such as those conducted by New York City-based Public Agenda.

But the new alliance might not be enough to win the confidence of those who are truly dissatisfied with their local schools and are looking to other alternatives, such as charter schools, private school vouchers, and home schooling.

The group will continue to draw the line against vouchers, said Shirley Sagawa, the executive director of the alliance, which will operate out of an office in Washington. Ms. Sagawa was previously the executive vice president of the Corporation for National Service.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which focuses on expanding school choice, said: "We have to be cautiously optimistic, but part of me says it's the same group of people with a different name. You've got to be willing to not just engage the public, but support what they want even if you don't agree with it."

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